Electric EDGE
Web Edition of The Ragged Edge
May/June 1997
Electric Edge

Our History & Heroes

The sit-in that changed our lives

By Mary Jane Owen
Little national attention was paid to the April crowd of people who watched as a plaque was placed in front of an old federal building which forms one side of the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco. It's not a terribly impressive building, but 20 years ago, for 28 long days and nights, a determined band of 100 of us with various disabilities conducted a sit-in there to demonstrate our worth, strength and dignity. What happened in its offices and along the corridors of its fifth floor could be as important to the disability rights movement as the Montgomery bus boycott is to African Americans. It is celebrated as the longest sit-in ever to take place in a federal building. But histories are being written which fail to note the day.

Who cares about disability history, anyway? The lessons of our past few decades suggest we really don't remember our heroes. Much of what has happened to us as a community has simply flowed past us, like tiny ripples upon the vast waves of other events.

It is true that for some who never even entered that building back in 1977, the knowledge of that event forever altered the way they thought of themselves. No longer would they be "victims" or "patients." New definitions emerged. People learned that there weren't that many really important differences in what each category of disabled people wanted. We all wanted to be respect and to know that we were not going to experience discrimination as we approached social service systems for help or looked to various agencies for employment opportunities.

But to most people, the stories of the power and strength of the ones who lived though those days of our sit-in are as important as newspaper clippings fading in storage boxes, while the world moves on to other issues.

I was one of the lucky few who endured that lengthy vigil and mutual-aid marathon in the old federal building. It forged many of my thoughts about this community of concern

which we now call the disability rights movement. We moved into that building following a rally on April 5, 1977 -- and we rolled out into the sunshine again 28 days later, exhausted and physically depleted, but triumphant.

We had gone into the building because we were tired of waiting for our civil rights to be ensured under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 -- which still, four years after its passage, had no rules written to implement it. We were angry at President Carter's refusal to honor his promise to get those rules issued which he'd made when he sought our votes. We must have seemed easy to forget before that April.

Could we be forgotten like that again? If we remember our heroes maybe we won't.

I first wrote of the "504 sit-in" (so called because it was the sit-in that caused the rules to be written for Section 504 of the 1973 law, the section that forbids discrimination) for Rehabilitation Gazette on the tenth anniversary of the sit-in. I wrote about a hunger strike that some of us had gone on during the sit-in.

The hunger-strike strategy had made sense to me; in courses at the New School for Social Research in New York in the fifties, I had studied Gandhi's passive resistance strategies. Our colleagues in Washington, D.C. who had originally called for the April 5 rallies across the nation had entered a federal building in the nation's capitol but when they were not allowed to go out to get food, or to receive food from friends on the outside, they were forced to abandon their protest.

On news of this, I remember saying to the others with me in the San Francisco building, "Some of us here can go on a hunger strike. That will prove that our civil rights are more important to us than food. They cannot starve us out!" So some of us decided to call a hunger strike, to confirm to ourselves and others our commitment to stay at any cost.

We who chose that form of commitment were amazed at how much time the others had to spend with food: preparing it, eating it, cleaning up afterward. We were free to spend those hours in discussion, strategizing, writing. At one point we decided to play the game of "Godmother." The person in the role of Godmother would offer each of us one wish; and we'd have to describe the wish.

Some wished for a favorite food, others for success in reaching our goal of getting the Section 504 regulations signed. The last to present her wish was Cathy, a young woman who used crutches. "If I'd been asked before to make a wish, it would have been not to be a cripple anymore. I wanted to be beautiful. But now I know I am beautiful, just the way I am."

I can never think back on that evening without the passion rising up into my throat. And, swallow as I may, the lump remains. She was a hero. And there were so many -- Steve, who lay, day after day and night after night, taping events around him on his recorder because he knew what was happening was important enough to risk his health. Jeff, who brought his guitar and proved to be a master cheerleader with chants on the bullhorn. He wrote new words for old civil rights songs with which we loudly greeted federal workers each morning.

Let us remember to remember -- or run the risk of never knowing the lessons they struggled to teach us. We need to learn from our history -- or their gains may fade, as the memories do.

Mary Jane Owen, a longtime disability rights activist, heads the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities.


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