Patrisha Wright was new to activism in 1977 when she joined 150 other people with disabilities in San Francisco who occupied a federal building for a month.
She was also new to being disabled. A degenerative muscle disease in her eyes left her blind at 21. “I knew as a nondisabled person all of the things I could get being an active member in my society. As a disabled person, 80 percent of those things were taken away from me,” she said.
Today, Americans with disabilities enjoy extensive civil rights protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But these rights didn’t come without a struggle, and a major turning point in this struggle was the monthlong standoff in San Francisco.
Although there had been previous laws covering people with disabilities, the issue had always been treated as a health issue, not a civil rights issue. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people with disabilities were demanding full inclusion in society.
“The disability population in the United States was treated as second-class citizens,” says Wright, co-founder of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “We didn’t have the same access as people without disabilities to jobs, to education, to recreation, to health care, or to transportation.”
An unsigned law
In 1974, the Rehabilitation Act, which regulated services for people with severe disabilities, passed into law. Section 504 of the act states that no organization receiving federal funding — government offices, many schools and universities among them — could discriminate against someone because of a disability.
But it couldn’t be implemented until the U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare issued regulations for its enforcement. As legislators called for studies of the impact of implementing Section 504 and proposed rewriting the regulations to make them less comprehensive, inaction dragged on. For more than three years.
During that time, protests from disability groups had proven ineffective in getting Section 504 implemented, even after then newly elected President Jimmy Carter appointed a new secretary of health, education and welfare.
That changed in 1977. The occupation of the Health, Education and Welfare building, organized by Judith Heumann (who would later serve as the State Department’s special adviser for international disability rights), became an act of civil disobedience that would last 28 days. The activists slept in the building, refusing to leave until the new secretary, Joseph Califano, issued the Section 504 regulations.
Wright was there as an assistant to Heumann. “Under Judy’s leadership, it was the first time we had other civil rights groups to support the cause,” says Wright. “We got groups like the Gray Panthers [and] the Black Panthers, all working towards supporting our being able to remain in that building that long.” Women’s rights groups and LGBT groups also lent their support.
Two weeks after the occupation started, a delegation of protesters traveled to Washington to meet with representatives in Congress.
On April 28, 1977, Califano issued the Section 504 regulations without any changes — a victory for the protesters that ended the longest peaceful occupation of a federal building in U.S. history.
Stepping stone to a new law
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act extended the protections of Section 504 to private institutions and workplaces. Wright earned the nickname “The General” for her ability to maneuver this new law to passage.
But Wright says the protest in San Francisco was what caused disability rights “to become framed as a major civil rights issues in this country. And I think history will point to that as the major turning point.”