Most people assume disability rights as a civil rights issue began with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Wrong. The recognition of disability rights as a civil right actually began with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
This was the first law making it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities based on their disability for entities that receive federal funding. That may seem like a narrow purview, but lots of entities—schools, universities, hospitals, banks, etc.—receive federal funds. The implications for people with disabilities were profound.
The Rehabilitation Act replaced the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, legislation that authorized grants to the states for spending on employment and vocational training programs for people with disabilities. Before 1973, it was assumed these funds were meant for people who had “vocational potential.” If you had a “severe disability” and were deemed not to have this potential, you didn’t get the funds. With the Rehabilitation Act, people without “vocational potential” demanded equal eligibility for those funds in order to become independent. And they got it—but it didn’t come easy!
Section 504 was actually more of an idea than a hard-boiled set of rules when the law was signed by President Nixon in 1973. Section 504 was the last piece of the law to be put in place after a protracted struggle between activists like myself who wanted broad protections and the “covered entities” that wanted as little change from the status quo as possible.
Over much of the next decade, disability rights activists, inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, pressed and agitated for regulations with teeth. The agency in charge of the rule-making, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW, now called the Department of Health and Human Services) waffled and delayed, but finally, it looked as though activists were going to get the rules they wanted, ones that would begin to open (and widen) the doors of American society to accept people with disabilities as equal participants, at least where federal funds were spent.
Then in early 1977, newly elected President Carter’s HEW started engaging in an industry-friendly gutting of the proposed regulations. The climax came when activists staged sit-ins at HEW regional offices around the country. The group I was part of sat in at the HEW office in downtown Manhattan and refused to leave for a day and a half; in San Francisco, the sit-in lasted two weeks. The media took note, and sympathetic Democrats in Congress put pressure on HEW Secretary Joseph Califano to sign off on the tougher regulations. The administration yielded. The protests worked.
Finally, 13 years before the ADA was passed, our community’s first civil rights law was fully on the books. But there was more to be done.
Section 504 was important and, perhaps, now it’s undeservedly overlooked. It was responsible for big changes in the way federally funded entities and programs were structured, enabling, for example, people with disabilities to go to school—to move in the same hallways and be in the same classrooms–with their peers for the first time. Many of the words we associate with the ADA come straight from Section 504, including the definition of disability (“a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities”) and the concept of “reasonable accommodation.”
So why was the ADA necessary? Well, not all entities are federally funded. If people with disabilities were going to have access to the full range of American life, the corner donut shop, local movie theater, city hall and state park needed to be accessible, too. Our civil rights’ inspired activists used to say, we don’t want a seat in the front of the bus, we just want to be able to get on the bus. Without a law that went beyond federally funded entities to include all public accommodations, that was not going to happen.
In the early seventies, many people with disabilities wanted to be included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but that would have meant opening up that landmark law, subjecting it to amendment and endangering its integrity. We soon began to see we needed a law of our own. The Rehabilitation Act was the first step in that direction, but the Americans with Disabilities Act is our landmark civil rights law. Its effect was to really put us out there as a community, to make us a visible force in American life.
I was thinking as I marched down Broadway with our ICS contingent at the first annual Disability Pride parade last month, as a person with a disability, I’m proud of being part of a community that is now protected in the broad sense against discrimination. At the same time, I want to urge us to use this law. Yes, celebrate the ADA—absolutely! It’s an important law. But let’s really use it.
There is always the danger of complacency. Just because we have the ADA does not mean the work is done. We’re not going to be given what we want or need just because we ask for it. We have to stay vigilant and keep the pressure on. Let’s use the ADA as the basis for continuing the fight.