Ed Roberts, Activist
We Won't Go Away Part 2
Featuring Ed Roberts. Produced in Great Britain in 1981 by Patricia Ingram with narration by Rosalie Wilkins
Jeff Moyer singing: Civil rights were knocking at our door. But Carter wouldn't stand on 504. Keep your eyes on the prize…
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: The sit-ins to demand the signing of the regulations which would enforce the Rehabilitation Act took place in federal buildings in 10 cities across the United States. In Washington, the demonstrators moved in determined to stay. The government officials refused to allow any food or drink into the building and, in effect, starved them out. In most cases, the sit-ins lasted only a few hours, but in San Francisco, the demonstrators stayed and stayed. They were not going to go away.
Jeff Moyer singing: Hold on, hold on.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: Three-and-a-half years later, we took Judy Heumann back to the Health, Education and Welfare Building where over 150 disabled people held out for 28 days. With her came three people who had shared the experience, Kitty Cohen and Ron Washington, fellow workers from CIL, and Jeff Moyer, who's blind and who became the resident musician for the demonstrators. For all of them, it was the first time they had returned since 1977 and the memories were still vivid of the day when they moved in, a strange, ill-assorted, but unique army.
Judy Heumann: In 1977, one of the beauties of the demonstration was the fact that we had persons with all kinds of disabilities and all age ranges. There were people who were blind and people who were deaf and people were in wheelchairs. They were quadriplegics and paraplegics and people who were blind and in wheelchairs, and people who were deaf and in wheelchairs. And you just think of the kind of disability that you would want to think of, and there was someone there that was representing that constituency.
Jeff Moyer singing: Hold On. Hold on. Hold on. Keep your eyes on that prize. Keep your eyes on that prize. Keep your eyes on that prize. Hold on.
Ed Roberts: That my ability to regain a pride in myself as a person with a disability is one of the most important things that's coming out of what's happening here today. And to see hundreds of people with disabilities rolling, signing, using canes, the more severely retarded people for the first time joining us in this incredible struggle, is one that leads me to believe that we're going to win this. That we are not going to stop until 504, which I believe is a basic civil rights platform, the platform that guarantees to each person with a disability in this county, that they are equal in the eyes of the law and that they will have equal access to educational institutions, to hospitals, to the institutions in our society which serve us all.
Various people talking: And here we are. Inside. I just want to pass real fast through here. It's going to be easier this time. This was our very first headquarters. Remember how we… It looks quite the same. Gee, it looks the same. Remember that desk? Really. Do you remember how we used to use the phones at that desk. Calling all over the country… It was the first thing we did. [overspeaking] I remember crashing out on the couch. Should we answer the phone? It looks like they've got a new typewriter, must be a computerized one. Yeah, I remember people used to spend the night on that couch. They used to have a TV in here. Remember, we monitored all the media?
Demonstrator: It's the first step in a long march. We've got a long way to go, but we're on the way and we're united. There's never been a group of people so connected to each other as this group of people here, and we're ready to walk together, march together, wheel together. Find our way down the road toward real civil rights.
Demonstrator: I want California to sign 504 for many, many different reasons. One of the reasons is our deaf people want to work. We don't want to live on SSI if we can work.
Ron Washington: I was really angry when I came in because we had been meeting and there was a lot of things in the newspaper about the 504 regulations possibly being cut, some of the important things that we felt were meaningful for us as disabled people were going to be taken out. And so when I got up here, I was really very angry and wanted to… I felt that we could… There were so many of us, so many disabled people, that we could probably get some changes done right then.
Judy Heumann: There was a total sense of power and control, and when the director was sitting in the chair where Jeff is now, there was like so many of us and he knew nothing and we kept… Remember we kept asking him to bring up the people from Higher Education and the people from the different parts of the Health, Education and Welfare Agency who were supposed to know about the regulations. And they came up… and two guys came in and said, "What's 504?"
Kitty Cohen: It was amazing because all the demonstrators had just been preparing and organizing for weeks in advance and had just come from a really militant rally, and we all knew what we were talking about. We knew real specifically what 504 was and what was happening, and they just didn't know at all. And here they were, in charge of our civil rights. It was… They must have been astounded. I mean, they must have been just…
Ron Washington: They were shaking in their pants because…
Kitty Cohen: Oh, they were. They were scared
Ron Washington: Yeah. As you said, we had that really powerful rally outside that just gave… I know, gave me a lot of inspiration and strength and I felt like I was Popeye and was ready to move this desk and jump on it. Poor Mr… What was his name, Maninata?
Ron Washington: He was, you know, he just really hadn't… And the people that came up also, they were just really stupid and…and.
Judy Heumann: I remember getting really furious the longer that we sat in the room. You know, there was a demonstration outside where it was like very exciting and very powerful, and then when we made it into the building, to me, it was also an incredible sense of control because we'd moved all of these people up through the elevators up onto this floor. And while there were a few of us, you know, who were planning to potentially stay overnight, the more I sat in this room and got these answers from people or these absolutely non-answers, the angrier I got. And that's when people started really feeling like we couldn't leave because no one knew what we were talking about, but we knew that they were trying to rescind the regulations.
Ron Washington: I know, Judy, you said…"You're going to sit in, aren't you?" I said, "Well, Judy, I didn't come prepared." She said, "You… You gotta stay here, Ron. You gotta stay here."
Kitty Cohen: To me, it was… There were so many things to be proud of. The fact that we managed to sustain ourselves for 28 days. We were so organized. I mean, we had our press committee, our food committee, our medical committee. Here we were, some of us severely disabled, sleeping on the floor every day, not knowing if we were going to get arrested, and going to bed at 3 o'clock in the morning and getting up at 6 o'clock, having clean-up committees so that the workers could come in and carry on their work in the building, and managing to tackle incredible political issues and refute the government when they were coming out with lies.
Demonstrator: It really wasn't an outlaw act. We were trying to make the system work, the typical 90-day period for regulations stretching to three-and-a-half years, and after all the public input looking like they were going to pass what they wanted to anyway in terms of water-downed regulations, it made everyone feel like it was… And it was a very righteous cause.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: They were not to be denied their victory. At the end of April 1977, after the longest sit-in in US history, it was over. The government capitulated and signed the regulations.
Demonstrators: Power to the people! Power to the people! Power to the people! Power to the people! Power to the people!
Eunice Fiorito: 1977 was the year in which disabled people had a great deal of visibility. They come into their own as a minority group in the minds and the eyes of the people and the administration of this country. But more important, to themselves, to disabled people, they felt a strength. An inner strength, I think, developed from the success as well as from the struggle.
Woman: Can you open the elevator please?
Intercom voice: It's right there. The doors did not open?
Woman: They just opened, thank you.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: In the next few years, many of the barriers to integration began to go down. Disabled people were coming off welfare and into jobs, moving around, mixing in the outside world as equals, but, of course, society was not transformed overnight. There were continuing battles to be fought, especially over the question of mass transport where the costs of making the system accessible are so high. In some cities like Washington, Seattle, and San Francisco, it was starting to happen, but resistance by the transport companies grew. Kitty Cohen recalls the struggle to get the San Francisco Bay area bus company to conform to the law.
Kitty Cohen: It was a hard fight. We had to go into court two times suing AC Transit. We attended all their board meetings. We participated in their studies. We went to public hearings where we would bring 50 disabled people who would testify quite eloquently about their personal experiences. We, at one time, about 200 disabled people demonstrated against AC Transit and blocked their buses at commute hour. And, finally, I think they realized that they were up against a force that simply would not subside, and so they adopted a policy of full accessibility. And since that time, they have really made an effort to make the system work, and I think it's working really well. We're really proud of what's happened here.
Jeff Moyer singing: The civil rights were knocking at our door. But Carter wouldn't stand on 504. Keep your eyes the prize, hold on. Hold on, hold on. Keep your eyes on that prize, hold on.
Rosalie Wilkins: With it all behind them, disabled people were feeling confident and hopeful as the '70s drew to a close. But in 1980, as Reagan rode to victory on a campaign promising to cut taxes, bring down inflation, and reduce government spending, the fear began to grow that rights were something the politicians would hand out in the good times and abandon when it suited them. The question disabled people were facing was: Would the struggle have to start all over again? The question that all affluent societies must face was confronting the American people: How much do you care?
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: At his inauguration on the 20th of January in 1981, President Reagan promised the American people a new beginning that sounded a grim note of warning on public spending.
President Ronald Reagan: For decades, we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. You and I as individuals can by borrowing live beyond our means but for only a limited period of time. Why then, should we think that collectively as a nation we're not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding, we're going to begin to act beginning today.
Rosalie Wilkins: On May the 7th this year, Congress was due to vote on President Reagan's budget proposals. The harsh reality of his commitment to slashing government spending on social programs while pouring money into defense. The future for disabled programs looked bleak, not only money but the hard-won legislation was at stake. So on that day, disabled Americans from all over the states gathered on Capital Hill to remind their Congress that the equal society for disabled Americans was in jeopardy.
Public speaker: We are here because we believe that disabilities or handicapping conditions in no way and by no means lessen, negate or destroy our rights.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: The first Reagan budget proposed cut federal funding for social services by 25%, but the crucial issue was the decision that money for social programs would be handed over to each state on block and without strings. Effectively, this would remove the federal government's power to direct how money is spent and would thus weaken the Section 504 legislation, which relies on having the weight of a federal mandate for its enforcement.
Public speaker: Let's agree to do everything we possibly can to keep block grants from passing this Congress. At least that way, we'll have still some control over the programs that help handicapped people. I'll work with you. I'll disseminate any information you give me. I'll do everything I can, and I assure you every other liberal member of Congress will do the same, but we need more than that. We need the Republicans, we need the conservatives, and you're the folks out there that can get them. So let's all work together. Let's at least make sure that whatever money comes through, is directed to specific programs and not block grants. Thank you very much.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: During the rally, small groups of demonstrators from each state formed delegations and moved into the Senate buildings to lobby the Senators and Congressmen who were supposed to represent their interests. Judy and her friends from CIL sought the help of Congressman George Miller of California, a Democrat.
Congressman George Miller: I don't think anybody ought to mislead you. I think that it has already been outlined and as it will be implemented, it's going to fall disproportionately on your community, on the handicapped community, on the elderly and on the poor. It's just very clear that that's where it has to fall because there's other areas of the economy of our society have been reserved not to participate in those…in those cuts. And I think what we will find out now is that it's far more harsh than they have led people to believe.
Ann and I have been going over just the cuts in our area, and you can't achieve in the Education and Labor budget, you can't achieve what the president wants to achieve without repealing the Handicapped for Education Children's Act, but he hasn't told that to the parents or to the handicapped students that that's how he has to achieve his goal.
As a matter of fact, he hasn't even told that to the Congress yet. He has quietly submitted that legislation for concern. You can't achieve the kinds of cuts that he desires without outright repeal of many of these programs because certainly we're not going to participate in cutting programs to the extent where they become so inefficient they serve no one. And I think they know that. I think it's clear. I really don't know where you find 11 billion dollars this year in cuts in the Education and Labor budget.
But very shortly, after the vote is taken here in the next 40-45 minutes, that's going to be our mandate on Monday to start searching for those funds. I know the announcement today that Dave Stockman is struggling to find another 5-10 billion dollars in cuts because he told us interest rates were going do down, right? Well, interest rates went up over the last four or five days. And so the cuts are going to become more severe because they still believe in a Margaret Thatcher syndrome that this is how you work your way out of your problem.
Well, they'll also find out that there are limits to the tolerance of people in this country. I think that people are going to have to become more militant. I think as you said, you've hit the streets before and we've had tremendous victories. [Buzzer sound] And there goes the call to go vote on this matter.
But I think that you're going to have to go those legislators who have voted for these budget cuts and hold their feet to the fire. I think you're going to have to go around the country and tell people in their community what the result is because there's a great belief in politics that somehow you can escape the ramifications of your actions. And I think you've got to make it very clear that you can't do that this time, that the results are too severe and too harsh.
Rosalie Wilkins: Thank you.
Congressman George Miller: Thank you. I'm sorry you had to come all this way for this reason. You know, it wasn't too long ago you made this trek so we could implement the laws. And now you're here three years later trying to say don't repeal them. It's amazing how it works in this system. Thank you. Thank you.
Rosalie Wilkins: Thank you.
Congressman George Miller: Bye then. See you. Good bye.
Public speaker: There are a lot of selfish people in the Congress of the United States who will do whatever they can to cut programs that are important. So it seems to me the mission that you need to perform and we need to perform is to identify those individual members who are the great budget cutters and see what we can do either to change them or cut them out of the Congress as members of the House and Senate. [Applause] So don't let your work end when you get off the plane, train, bus or car and get back home. Continue to work to build public sentiment directing it at those individuals that you have a power and an opportunity to affect in one way or another. Above all, do not be discouraged by whatever may happen today. And I can tell you, out of my 40 years of experience in the nation's capital, much of it in that building behind us and in these buildings beside us, I can tell you that sometimes the darkest hour is the time when if the people get sufficiently aroused, they can win what seemed like a lost cause. I thank you.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: I asked Republican Senator Lowell Weicker, who'd voted against the block grants, if the administration was aware of the effect of its policies on disabled people.
Senator Lowell Weicker: No, I don't think the administration has assessed the effects of any of its cuts in the social programs. I think they just wanted to achieve a bottom line dollar amount. There was no evaluation of either what was good and what was bad. A good example of that would be education. Education where we know statistically for every dollar the federal government's put up, we receive some 9 dollars back in return in the sense of that person being a productive member of society earning larger wages, being taxed more, etc. We get much more back than we put out.
Rosalie Wilkins: Do you think there is a backlash amongst the America public against the demands being made by handicapped people?
Senator Lowell Weicker: I think there's a backlash in this country at anything that doesn't fit into a majority status, whether we're talking about the minority which is racial, the minority which is sex, the minority which is disabled and retarded. All of this means trouble, and the majority doesn't want to be troubled right now.
Judy Heumann: What's being proposed in this country is we're going to balance the budget. But if you analyze the budget, you see that quite the contrary is true, that they're taking about 36 billion dollars out of social services programs, but they're not putting it back into the people's hands, they're putting it into the military budget. So I think that, if anything, the Civil Rights movement have been becoming too weak and that we should be much more forthright and much more strong.
Ed Roberts: I'm convinced that we're going to go through a real traumatic time right now and, just as President Reagan is challenging these rights, I think that's going to go on for a while because there's, unfortunately, when we talk about integration with blacks and changing the schools, we didn't talk about how much it cost. It costs billions and billions of dollars. But when we talk about equal rights for the handicapped, we're talking about billions and billions of dollars and the cost issue has become the forefront issue. Not whether we should have basic rights. I think everybody agrees that that should happen, but the cost becomes the hang-up.
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: What tactics do you think disabled people should use against Reagan's budget cuts?
Ed Roberts: Everything we can think of, especially that are theatrical and that help remind people of our basic values in this country are. That we do care about those folks that are considered the weakest and that government does have a role to play with people who aren't going to make it without some kind of government help, whether it's maintenance kinds of help or movement toward independent living. I think constantly reminding people that while we're in an age and a shortage of dollars, that we can't lose our human values and the values that we built this country on.
Debbie Kaplan: I think it will come out that the public is fairly supportive even though… I just heard a recent public opinion poll that 80% of the people in the country are not in favor of what Reagan is doing in social service cuts. I think people are fairly supportive once they understand what we're talking about, once they understand that we're talking about access to jobs and access to living independent lives, and we're not talking about just handouts.
Ralf Hotchkiss: All along some of our strongest support has come from the far right anyway. Self-determination, independence, those are all both left and right issues. And I don't think that we'll lose on all fronts
Narrator Rosalie Wilkins: You don't feel that civil rights is becoming a dirty word at all.
Ralf Hotchkiss: No.
Debbie Kaplan: Disabled people are not going to go away, and the increased education, the increased rights that disabled people have are going to lead to more and more disabled people who will want to partake in society and not be treated like little children all their lives. And one way or another sooner or later it's going to happen.
Senator Lowell Weicker: Now none of this comes cheap. Who's arguing that? I'm not going to sit here and say that, you know, that we can have these things and we're going to cut taxes. But what I am saying is that the purpose of government, it seems to me, is not… It's not in our officialty like a corporation. Government is there to help each individual flower to his or her greatest extent, to give expression, you know, to what they are or what's inside of them. Because government is the people. And yet in what we're doing now either cutting back on funding or once again shifting the problem back to where the problem originated, you know, I think we're washing our hands of this matter for political purposes so that the majority…so that the majority can lead their lives unencumbered by the problems of others or the cost that those problems raise.
Ed Roberts: I think that the difference between now and 20 years ago is that the movement of the disabled is concerned about all of this and has a fundamental belief that we all can take our places in the community and we don't have to be institutionalized or segregated. If you come from a basic spirit that you believe you can succeed, and that mixes in a lot of philosophies, you know, like positive mental attitude and all the different things that crop up around this country, they are definitely ingredients in what happened in Berkeley and what's happening in the whole movement in this country. It's like the people who are considered the absolute weakest in our society, we're beginning to discover that we're among the strongest in our own ways, that disability is very challenging and it can send you down in flames or it can send you up
Jeff Moyer singing: The civil rights were knocking at our door. But Carter wouldn't stand on 504. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. Well after four years of delay, we reclaimed the ground we gained. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. Hold on. Hold on.
Public speaker: Some philosopher once said that if you can go to a country and just look at one or two things and make a judgment, on that country probably the thing that you'd want to do is to see how that civilization or that country takes care of its older citizens. Well, there's some partial truth in that, but I would broaden that test just a bit to say that you ought to judge a country on how they treat their older citizens and their children and those who are disadvantaged.
Jeff Moyer singing: Hold on. Hold on. Keep your eyes on that prize. Keep your eyes on that prize. Keep your eyes on that prize, hold on.