In 1973, Congress passed the very first civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination based on disability by any entity that receives federal funds. Senator Hubert Humphrey was a champion of civil rights for people with disabilities. He said, “[T]he time has come to firmly establish the right of disabled Americans to dignity and self-respect as equal and contributing members of society and to end the virtual isolation of millions of children and adults.”
As with any law, regulations needed to be written to define who a person with a disability was and what constituted discrimination. There was much controversy surrounding Section 504 and getting the regulations published was a battle that lasted for several years. Disability advocates had to file a lawsuit to get the government to finalize the regulations. Unfortunately, the court did not set a date by which the regulations had to be published. The disability community grew more frustrated. A coalition was formed to lead an effort to get regulations out. The coalition was called the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities.
The federal government set up a task force to study the regulations, but failed to include any individuals with disabilities among its members. The disability community feared that the rules were being watered down significantly. Rather than wait for weak regulations to come out and then submit comments, the community borrowed from the African American Civil Rights movement and organized a sit-in at the San Francisco office of what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). The San Francisco sit-in lasted for 28 days! A refrain from those days was, “We can’t even get on the back of the bus.”
A Congressional hearing was held at the San Francisco HEW office where leaders of the disability rights movement (including Judy Heumann and Ed Roberts) gave compelling testimony about the discrimination each of them faced on a daily basis. A smaller group of disability rights advocates traveled to Washington and demonstrated in front of the HEW Secretary’s home and the church where the President was worshiping. Finally, on April 28, 1977 the Secretary of HEW signed the regulations.
Today, every federal agency has Section 504 regulations concerning the programs that receive funds from that particular agency. And today, discrimination is prohibited on the basis of disability in education, employment, state programs, health care facilities, airports, public libraries, public parks, local government buildings and programs; the list goes on and on.