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Women Who Changed History – Part 3

Disability Rights Movement

Early nineteenth-century developments in disability rights included the development of Braille and formal education for the Deaf and Deaf-Blind people.

The Disability Rights Movement is another important social movement. It was a major contributor to a shift in how we view those with impairments. Here, again, many women with disabilities played pivotal roles in this movement. 

Judy Heumann

Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives – job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”

One such activist was Judith Ellen Heumann. Sadly, this warrior passed on March 4, 2023. 

Judy was born December 18, 1947, in Philadelphia, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of Werner and Ilse’s three children. Werner and Ilsa were German immigrants, who had come to the United States in 1934 and 1935, respectively. 

In 1949, at age 18 months, Judy was diagnosed with polio.  The child spent 3 months in an iron lung.  From then on,Heumann used a wheelchair for most of her life.  When Ilse tried to enroll Judith in kindergarten, the school district in their adopted country refused to allow her to physically attend elementary school.  Because she couldn’t walk, the principal deemed her a “fire hazard.” 

For three years, she was forced to make do with home instruction – two days a week, each session running for about an hour. In 1961, Heumann was finally allowed to attend a special school, after which she attended high school, Long Island University (earning a BA in 1969), the University of California, Berkeley (earning a Master’s in Public Health in 1975).

Heumann said, “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives – job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”

During her lifetime, Judy Heumann worked to pass important pieces of legislation like the Rehabilitation Act’s Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sign 504!

“No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 

The 504 sit-in came about because the government failed to enforce the legislation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 

President Richard Nixon vetoed earlier versions of the Section in 1972 and 1973, causing protest demonstrationsin 1972 by Disabled ini Action. Led by Heumann, they demonstrated in New York City. Nearly 100 activists sat-in and stopped traffic on Madison Avenue! 

Also in 1972, DIA, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the National Paraplegia Foundation, and other disabled activists protested Nixon’s veto in Washington, D.C. 

The Act was eventually signed into law in 1973. 


However, from 1973 to 1977 the regulations were not published. People with disabilities and other interested parties filed suit in federal court. The Judge ruled that regulations must be issued – but did not provide a date by which this was to happen. 

Some groups obviously didn’t want the regulations published. There was a lot of back-and-forth with the attorneys from the Office of Civil Rights and the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), Joseph A. Califano, Jr. Califano was dragging his feet about signing the regulations. He even sent them to Congress – and they sent them right back. 

Enough is Enough

The disability community formed the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) and pressed hard for the issuance of the regulations. Frank Bowe was its Director. 

The ACCD demanded that the regulations be issued by April 4, 1977, without any changes. They warned that if the regulations were not issued, action would be taken.

They had planned sit-ins the following day at eight HEW regional headquarters, in case Secretary Califano did not comply.

Washington, D.C.

In Washington, D.C., Joseph Califano refused to sign substantive provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for disabled people, saying he needed to review them further. 

San Francisco, California

Following the April 4, 1977 ultimatum and deadline, demonstrations were set in motion in ten U.S. cities on April 5, 1977, including the San Francisco office of HEW. This sit-in was led by Heumann and organized by Kitty Cone. 

Don’t Let the Government Steal Our Civil Rights! 

Washington, D.C.

On April 5, 1977, activists started their demonstrations at HEW offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle The largest were in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The protesters were demanding that the regulations for Section 504 be signed. 

About 300 people marched and demonstrated in Washington, D.C. inside the HEW building where Secretary Califano’s office was. Califano met with Frank Bowe and a few protester leaders, but he still did not sign the regulations. As a result, many protesters sat-in overnight. 

San Francisco, CA

In San Francisco, a protest was planned by Judith Heumann, Kitty Cone, and Mary Jane Owen. It started on April 5, 1977. 

Together with their allies, over 500 disabled people attended a rally on Civic Center Plaza. Various speakers told the crowd about their disabilities, their difficulties, how not having the regulations put into play would continue to have an impact on their lives, and why Califano needed to sign the regulations. The rally was winding down whenHeumann urged the crowd:  “Let’s go and tell HEW the federal government cannot steal our civil rights!” She rolled off the platform in that direction. 

After the rally, approximately 150 people streamed into the Federal Building at 50 United Nations Plaza. They were old and young, had many different disabilities; it was a culturally diverse group. Some brought their allies and other caregivers, some were non-disabled people. ASL interpreters, personal care attendants came, and parents of children with disabilities all came. 

They headed for Joe Maldonado’s office. Joe Maldonado was the HEW regional director, whose office was on the fourth floor of the building. When some of the protesters asked what the status was of the Section 504 regulations, Maldonado responded by asking them: “What is Section 504?” None of the HEW employees they talked to had ever heard of Section 504. 

The protestors said they would not be leaving until they got assurances that the enabling regulations would be signed. Regional director Maldonado left the office. 

We’re Not Leaving 

The protesters “took up residence,” and said they weren’t going to leave. 

HEW officials in D.C. ordered the San Francisco phone lines be shut down. The City of San Francisco had pay phones installed. 

Washington, D.C.

On the second day of the sit-in, Secretary Califano met with the D.C. protestors. He told them he intended to sign the regulations, but he just needed more time to study them. After that, he put the protestors under guard and allowed no food or medicine to be brought into the building.

San Francisco, CA

Since some demonstrators had only come prepared to possibly stay overnight, they needed their medication. Some of that medication, once it was brought to the office, needed to be kept refrigerated, so Kitty Cone came up with a way to keep medicine cool: she attached a box to the end of an air conditioner, and that’s where the medicine was stored. 

On the third day, security was ordered to allow no one into the building. That meant the protestors would have no access to food, medicine or clean clothes. 

Brad Lomax, the founder of the Washington, D.C,. chapter of the Black Panther Party, was a disabled protester with multiple sclerosis, requested assistance from the party. The Black Panthers brought the protesters supplies, hot meals and snacks for the entire Sit-In. The Panthers helped publicize the sit-in, and made it clear that the protesters were not to be left to starve. 

In addition, McDonald’s and Safeway brought provisions – until they realized the protest was an act of civil disobedience.

HEW shut off the hot water and blocked outgoing phone calls. The protesters only had 2 pay phones that they were could use to contact people on the outside. The phone company was not emptying the coins from the phones, so they soon jammed. 

Washington, D.C.

The Washington, D.C., contingent folded after little over a day, and the press figured it would be “just a matter of time” before the rest of the protesters followed suit. 

San Francisco, CA

Because interest in the demonstration was beginning to wane, the Rev. Cecil Williams, then pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, [https://www.glide.org/church/ ]set up a vigil outside the HEW offices to let the press and the public know the fight was still on.

By this time, Denver and New York were finished – and Los Angeles was down to 35 protesters. 

The building security tried to scare the protesters into leaving, telling them there was a bomb in the building. ALLof the protesters decided to stay, anyway. 

Day after day, it seemed like there was always “one more obstacle.” 

Two Weeks In

It didn’t seem like they were making any headway. What they needed was more national attention. AND also they had heard Califano was watering down the regulations! So a way had to be made to send a contingent to Washington, D.C. 

All of the agencies involved pooled their efforts and resources to get airline tickets and to cover other travel expenses for 25 people. In the Capitol, the International Association of Machinists (https://www.goiam.org/about/iam-wesbites/ ) rented a U-Hall with a lift so people in wheelchairs could be transported, and they slept in churches D.C. They had to get people on that side of the country to pay attention. 

In the District, they demonstrated, rallied, held vigils and prayed – outside President Jimmy Carter’s church, in front of both the White House, across the street from the White House, and outside Califano’s house, and they sang, “Sign 504” (to the tune of “We Shall Overcome”). 

San Francisco, CA

All the while, despite (or because of) the hardships, the folks inside the San Francisco HEW offices were bonding. They were getting to know and care for each other. Each learned about the other’s disability and found ways to work around them. Sighted protesters read to blind protestors. Ones who could, helped others find physical comfort and avoid bedsores. Protesters who could, signed messages to the outside, and the folks outside passed applicable messages to the press. 

They were strong! They didn’t give up and they didn’t go home empty-handed! 

April 28, 1977

It was a hard-won fight, and Joseph Califano signed both the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and Section 504 on April 28, 1977.



Brennan Center for Justice, Article:  The Equal Rights Amendment Explained, by Alex Cohen and Wilfred U. Codrington, III, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/equal-rights-amendment-explained

Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), Article:  Short History of the 504 Sit-in, by Kitty Cone,https://dredf.org/504-sit-in-20th-anniversary/short-history-of-the-504-sit-in/

Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Article: Alice Paul, Schlesinger Library/Collection,https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/collections/alice-paul

Huffpost, Article:  Judith Heumann, ‘Mother of the Disability Rights Movement,’ Has Died, by Shruti Rajkumar, Mar 4, 2023, 7:51 PM EST, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/judith-heumann-obit-disability-rights-movement_n_6403ca28e4b029d870168df0

Ms. Magazine, Article: Fifty Years Later, the Equal Rights Amendment Is Ratified. Now What?, by Carrie N. Baker, 2/10/2022, https://msmagazine.com/2022/02/10/equal-rights-amendment-ratified/

PBSAmerican Experience, Article:  Fannie Lou Hamer, From the Collection: Women in American History,https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedomsummer-hamer/

The New York Times, Article:  Judy Heumann, Who Led the Fight for Disability Rights, Dies at 75

by Alex Traub, March 5, 2023, 6:26 PM EST, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/05/obituaries/judy-heumann-dead.html

USA TODAY, Article:  ’It’s time to clear the path to equality’: Senate revisits Equal Rights Amendment after 40 years, by Rachel Looker, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2023/03/05/senate-ratify-equal-rights-amendment-era/11389985002/

Wikipedia, Article:  Fannie Lou Hamerhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fannie_Lou_Hamer

Wikipedia, Article:  Judy Heumannhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Heumann

Women’s History.org, Article:  Alice Paul (1885-1977), edited by Debra Michals, PhD, 2015,https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/alice-paul

Image: A Suffragette on Hunger Strike in the UK Being Force Fed with a Nasal Tube 

Date: Circa 1911, Source: Sylvia Pankhurst (1911).  The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement, 1905 – 1910. New York: Sturgis & Walton Company, facing p. 433. Author: Unknown (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70354309) 

Image: Miss [Lucy] Burns in Occoquan Workhouse, Washington 

Date: 1917 November, Author: Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. (Photographer), Informal portrait, Lucy Burns, ¾ length, seated, facing forward, holding a newspaper in her lap, in front of a prison cell, likely at Occoquan Workhouse, in Virginia 

Image: [Alice] Paul Toasting (with grape juice) the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920 

By Harris & Ewing, Inc. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a21383.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2556292

Image: Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer, American civil rights leader, at the Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964. Leffler, Warren K., photographer. Photograph shows half-length portrait of Hamer seated at a table.  No known restrictions on publication. https://lccn.loc.gov/2003688126

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