Ed Roberts, Activist
Jeff Moyer's Story and Memories of the 504 Demonstration and Rally in Front of the San Francisco Federal Building
My name is Jeff Moyer. I became a student at the University of California at Berkeley in 1973 because a California junior college counselor told me I should aim high and that I had grades good enough to get in. When I got to Berkeley, I discovered the Physically Disabled Students Program, the first in the world, and I met its founder, Ed Roberts. Ed instantly taught me about the symbiosis and power that people with different disabilities can have when working together. Ed would play an increasingly important part in my life as the years went on.
But the Physically Disabled Students' Program services, such as the Blind Students' Study in the campus main undergraduate library and reader referral, would enable me, for the first time, to study easily on campus and then to be tested on my knowledge, not my vision. It was thrilling and liberating and, after I applied myself rigorously to my studies, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Because of the many students with disabilities that I met through Ed's program, I also became politicized concerning disability.
After graduation, I went to work for Ed Roberts at the Center for Independent Living (CIL), another program he was seminal in starting. Ed asked me to serve on an advisory committee at the University of San Francisco. I didn't think I could handle the responsibility, but Ed did. He believed in me before I believed in myself.
At the CIL, I ultimately became Deputy Director, a position I held when the 504 Demonstration was being planned. I remembered the lessons of the Civil Rights movement, during which I had cut my teeth as a political musician. I re-wrote some Civil Rights songs and went to the Demonstration with a rented bullhorn and my guitar. At the end of the demonstration and rally in front of the San Francisco Federal Building, Ed Roberts spoke to the assembled protesters, and then I sang the song that would become the theme for the demonstration, "Hold On."
That became the longest occupation of a Federal building in U.S. history Over one hundred people with disabilities, parents of kids with disabilities, and non-disabled supporters staged an unexpected civil disobedience action that has remained an unsung chapter of America's Civil right's legacy.
The demonstration's purpose was to press the Carter administration to fulfill a pledge of his candidacy. He promised to sign drafted regulations for Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that had languished without regulations for over three years. The Rehab Act was passed over President Nixon's veto but Section 504 was the controversial piece of the law, promising Americans with disabilities an end to discrimination in education, employment and services from organizations using Federal money. It met opposition from hospitals, universities and schools.
We all entered the building and ultimately settled in for the duration until regulations were signed. For 28 days, the demonstrators lived on the sixth floor of the Federal building to pressure the Carter Administration to sign the promised regulations. I was not one of the heroic scores of people who lived within the difficult circumstances of the Federal building full time, I commuted back and forth to the demonstration in order to fulfill my responsibilities at home to my wife and infant son. But thoughts of that monumental accomplishment come to mind this month as we celebrate Ed Roberts Day.
Ed didn't stay at the Demonstration at all, he was very busy in Sacramento with his job as head of the California Rehabilitation Department. I stayed several nights and I recall helping to get Hale, a man with severe cerebral palsy out of his wheel chair and bedded down on the hard carpeted floor. We became a community supporting each other in genuine and humble ways.
Today, the broad-reaching Americans With Disabilities Act is grounded in the principles of Section 504. Our society has become more inclusive although we have a long way to go. My own brother Mark, who has severe cognitive disabilities, has been a bellwether of that change. He has moved from a hideous institution, where he languished in the most violent conditions from 1963 to 1981, to supported living thanks to the progress of law and my own advocacy. In many ways, Ed Roberts set the stage for Mark's life change, which would not have been possible without the 504 Demonstration. Thanks also to those brave individuals whose tenacity and personal sacrifice 36 years ago have helped to make a more just society for all of us.
In 1981, a British film crew went to the San Francisco Bay Area to record a documentary on the U.S. Disability Rights Movement that would air on the BBC. I was working at Telesensory System Inc, a Silicon Valley company which was developing the state-of-the-art of assistive technology for individuals who were blind and for those who could not speak. The synthetic speech we were developing would ultimately become the voice of Dr. Stephen Hawkins.
I was asked by the film crew to go back with the others to re-live the demonstration. During the filming, I went back to the stairwell, towering seven marble stories, and sang songs from the demonstration. I had used that stairwell technique during the demonstration because I hoped that a lot of Federal employees would hear the lyrics and understand our purpose in disrupting the Office of Civil Rights and the Office of Health, Education and Welfare with our sit-in.
The stairwell gave a natural "reverb" to my performance. Sometimes I would stand in front of the main doors to the building at early morning or at five o'clock and sing to the employees as they came or went from work. During the sit-in, sometimes I would sing in the stairwell. At other times I would sing to employees as they came and went from work, or walk around the corridors of the vast Federal Building singing and playing, with other demonstrators joining in. It was a moment in history that really changed the world. I am still singing songs of Disability Rights and social justice. Music works.