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A Look Back at 'Section 504'

San Francisco Sit-In a Defining Moment in Disability Rights History

April 28, 2002 -- It's a little-known moment in a little-known civil rights movement. But for people with disabilities, it's a moment as important as Selma or Stonewall. Twenty-five years ago, a band of disabled people staged a sit-in at a federal office building in San Francisco.

They were demanding enforcement of the first major law to bar discrimination against the disabled. The protesters believed the law would bring one of the nation's most isolated and powerless groups into the mainstream. For Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR's Joseph Shapiro takes a look back at the 504 sit-in.

By the late '70s, Americans were used to seeing civil-rights marches. But this one was something new: people in wheelchairs, people on portable respirators, deaf people, people with mental retardation. And most were fighting mad.

What they wanted was the signing of regulations to enact a law known as Section 504, a part of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. It would force hospitals, universities -- any place that got federal money -- to remove obstacles to services and provide access to public transportation and public places.

But complying with the law was often expensive, so for nearly four years, the government failed to enforce it.

Frustrations mounted, and in April 1977, sit-ins were organized across the country. Demonstrators in New York and Washington, D.C., went home after a few days. But in San Francisco at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, protesters didn't give up. One day turned into a second day and then a third. More than 100 disabled demonstrators stayed in the building for weeks, refusing to leave until the regulations were signed.

On April 28, nearly four weeks into the sit-in, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano endorsed the regulations. The protesters had won.

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