The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
In 1972, Congress passed a rehabilitation bill that independent living activists cheered. President Richard Nixon’s veto prevented this bill from becoming law. During the era of political activity at the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s veto was not taken lying down by disability activists who launched fierce protests across the country. In New York City, early leader for disability, fights, Judy Heumann, staged a sit-in on Madison Avenue with eighty other activists.
Traffic was stopped. After a flood of angry letters and protests, in September 1973, Congress overrode Nixon’s veto and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 finally became law. Passage of this pivotal law was the beginning of the ongoing fight for implementation and revision of the law according to the vision of independent living advocates and disability rights activists. Key language in the Rehabilitation Act, found in Section 504 of Title V, states that:
No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
Advocates realized that this new law would need regulations in order to be implemented and enforced. By 1977, Presidents Nixon and Ford had come and gone. Jimmy Carter had become president and had appointed Joseph Califano his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Califano refused to issue regulations and was given an ultimatum and deadline of April 4, 1977. April 4 went by with no regulations and no word from Califano.
On April 5, demonstrations by people with disabilities took place in ten cities across the country. By the end of the day, demonstrations in nine cities were over. In one city, San Francisco, protesters refused to disband.
Demonstrators, more than 150 people with disabilities, had taken over the federal office building and refused to leave. They stayed until May 1. Califano had issued regulations by April 28, but the protesters stayed until they had reviewed the regulations and approved of them.
The lesson is a simple one. As Martin Luther King said,
Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
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