504 Protest: Disability, Community, and Civil Rights

Three people in wheelchairs one white man, one black man, and a white woman speaking into microphones with cameras pointed at them. A white woman stands in the background using American Sign Language.
From left: Hale Zukas, Ron Washington, and Judy Heumann respond to a question at a press conference held at the San Francisco airport before protesters leave for Washington. Lynette Taylor provides American Sign Language interpretation.

San Francisco Examiner Archive. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

  • When have you benefited from the support of other people? How did working together help you accomplish more than you could have on your own?

In April of 1977, a group of around 100 people with many kinds of disabilities staged a month-long sit-in as part of a national protest. The protesters demanded that the federal government honor their civil rights. They felt they had waited too long for the access they were legally entitled to. They not only wanted access to buildings and structures. They wanted to participate in the programs and activities that nondisabled could enjoy. The goal of their protest was to force the federal government to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Often referred to as 504, this was the first federal law that recognized disability as a civil rights category [1].

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is less than one hundred words long, it goes as follows:
“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705 of this title, shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

How did we get here?

The goal of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was twofold. First, it required affirmative action in employment by both the federal government and by government contractors for people with disabilities [2]. Second, it prohibited discrimination based on disability. This law applied to any programs receiving federal funds and in 1978 was expanded to include any programs run by a federal agency. Section 504 addressed basic needs that disabled people were fighting for: access to education and employment. In short, 504 extended civil rights to people with disabilities. Issues arose because the regulations for the section had yet to be published. Despite federal law stating that “reasonable accommodations” needed to be made for disabled people, there was no way to check or enforce that.

Without regulations, accessibility features were unavailable for disabled and nondisabled people. These accommodations now include curb cuts, handrails, and ramps in federal buildings, and access to public schools. It also required alternative language options like Braille and American Sign Language. Lack of accessibility not only separated people with disabilities from general society, but also from each other. Disabled people had a very clear understanding of what they needed. However, there was very little cross-disability organizing, according to John Wodatch, a civil rights lawyer for HEW in the 1970s (504 at Fifty, with John Wodatch part 1).

Under President Ford’s administration regulations were developed, but they were not published by the time he left office. There was significant push back against publishing of the regulations from organizations that would have to comply with the new requirements of 504. These organizations, such as schools and hospitals, did not want to have to spend the money necessary to comply with 504 regulations. After years of delay, the task of signing off on publication of these regulations fell to President Carter’s HEW (Health, Education, and Welfare) Secretary Joseph A Califano Jr.

“Sign 504!” The Protest Begins

In 1977 the disabled population of the United States had waited four years for the Section 504 regulations to be signed. By April of that year, they were impatient. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) prepared to pressure HEW secretary Joseph A. Califano. Leaders of the ACCD had evidence that Califano was working with lobbyists who wanted to weaken 504 regulations. To counter this, they gave Califano an ultimatum: sign off on publication of unaltered 504 regulations by April or step down. When neither of these demands were met, groups of disabled organizers began to develop a new strategy. Ten protests across the US launched on April 5th, 1977. On that first day protests unfolded outside of regional HEW offices in: San Francisco, CA, Washington, DC, Seattle, WA, Los Angeles, CA, Denver, CO, Chicago, IL, Dallas, TX, Atlanta, GA, New York City, NY, Boston, MA, and Philadelphia, PA.

After several hours outside, organizers led the protesters into the HEW buildings. Sit-ins emerged around the country. People with all kinds of disabilities, from wheelchair users to those who were Deaf or blind, took up residence. Although these protests occurred in all ten cities, the only sit-in to continue past the first few days was the one located at 50 UN Plaza in San Francisco [3]. Protesters occupied the HEW offices there for the next 26 days.

Stronger Together

Committees organized inside the office to sustain the protest. They had to arrange food, hygiene, medical needs, and publicity. Some of the committee members were people who had been involved in organizing the protest. People such as Judy Heumann had been involved in organizing protests for years at this point. After suing New York State to become the first disabled person to earn her teaching license, she became politically active fighting for the rights of disabled people. Inside the HEW office, she took on the important task of ensuring that protesters’ basic needs were met.

Other leaders were people who had initially only been participants, but upon entering the building took up leadership roles. Kitty Cone became an important organizer of logistics. Another protester, Dennis Billups, helped boost the protesters’ morale. He had joined the protest at the urging of his sister, who was also disabled. Once the sit-in began, Billups became very involved with motivating protesters, and mediating disputes. He also became a member of the Black Panthers during the sit-in.

Protesters inside the HEW offices relied on each other and their support networks to help them maintain their health as best as possible. They chose to forgo their medical equipment and personal aides that assisted them in their day-to-day lives. People slept on the floor, and they did not have access to kitchen facilities. Kitty Cone built a makeshift “refrigerator” from office supplies. They placed a box around an air conditioning unit, which enabled them to keep vital medications cold.

Some people with limited mobility were unable to move independently. This meant they were at risk of developing bed sores from sleeping on the floor in one position the whole night. They would have to rely on others to assist with preventing bed sores. After a few days the police shut off the hot water and cut the phone lines. Without means of vocal communication, the protesters relied on those amongst them who knew sign language. Someone inside the building would sign out the window to let supporters outside know about the situation inside.

Supporters of the protest extended beyond the bounds of the disabled community. Other groups such as the Brick Hut lesbian cooperative, Glide Memorial Church, and many others helped to ensure the protesters’ basic needs were met. This widespread support was central to the San Francisco sit-in's success. Another key ally of this protest was the International Association of Machinists (IAM). IAM was a trade union which had a decades-long history of involvement with civil rights advocacy.

Many of the protesters were also active within other civil rights causes. These connections helped to build a broader system of support. Several were members of the Black Panther Party and suggested that protest organizers reach out for support. Food and other supplies were provided to the protesters by the local section of the Black Panther Party. Every day they dropped off one hot meal and supplies for two more meals. Some of the protesters went even further and went on a hunger strike. They said they would only eat once 504 regulations were signed, or if Joseph Califano resigned.

This protest for the signing of the 504 regulations was one of very few instances where people with such a wide variety of disabilities gathered for extended amounts of time. Due to lack of accessibility, disabled people were often isolated from each other. Only in rare cases, such as specialized camps, were they able to gather as a larger group. The twenty-six days inside 50 UN Plaza created the opportunity for unity across different disabled communities. Protesters gathered and shared stories of their struggles and triumphs in life. While not everyone could relate to every experience that others had, they believed each other’s stories. The bonds forged between people with different disabilities during the 504 protests of 1977 have contributed to building a disability community today.

On to Washington, DC and Victory!

A few weeks after the sit in began, a delegation of protesters – including Judy Heumann and Dennis Billups – went to Washington, DC. IAM funded the trip for this small delegation. The protesters wanted to meet with President Jimmy Carter to pressure him about 504 regulations. Upon arriving in DC, the protesters ran into trouble. They were unable to find transportation that could accommodate those who use wheelchairs. To get around DC, IAM rented out a box truck, which could transport about a dozen people in wheelchairs at a time. The protesters lacked financial resources, so they needed to do things the least expensive way possible, even if that meant being transported around the city shut in the back of the truck in the dark.

Despite the protesters’ constant effort, neither Carter nor Califano would meet with any of them. They were able to meet with a member of President Carter’s staff, but this action failed to increase pressure on Califano. At this time the news about the sit-in at 50 UN Plaza in San Francisco reached national coverage and the tactics in DC became more aggressive. Now reporters were there, broadcasting to United States citizens. People watched as their president snuck out back doors to avoid protesters. With this increase in pressure from the media, Joseph Califano signed regulations for Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Finally, the protesters left 50 UN Plaza having made the United States a better place for people with disabilities.

In the face of government ignorance, and inhumanity, and deceit, and closed doors, we’ve persisted. Along with all of our beautiful supporters and we won the victory, by God nobody gave us anything!” – Kitty Cone, protest organizer (Kitty Cone, “Sit In Victory Speech”)

Twenty-six days after they entered the building the protesters left 50 UN Plaza. They were greeted by friends, loved ones, and the media. this was a major victory for the disabled community in the US. It showed that as a group people with disabilities are powerful. They are willing and able to hold their ground and fight for the rights of disabled people in the US.


  • Have you ever gotten so tired of waiting on something promised to you that you acted?

Foot Notes:

1: In 1968 the Architectural Barriers Act passed. This act required access to federal facilities, including the bathrooms, some argue this is a civil right. Making the Architectural Barriers Act the first civil rights law about disabilities. However, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was explicitly labeling disability as a civil rights category. Section 504 was mirroring the language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
2: The language used to talk about people with disabilities is changing. Some people prefer person first language, such as person with a disability. Other people prefer identity first language, such as disabled person. To reflect this changing language both kinds of phrasing are used throughout this article.
3: The Federal Building was individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 5, 2017.

This article was researched and written by Alyssa Eveland, American Conservation Experience Fellow, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education

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The Power of 504, Produced by Dan Veltri, Written by Lynnette Taylor and Jim Meek, Treehouse Video and The 504 Sit-In 20th Anniversary Committee, 1997 The Power of 504 (open caption and audio description, English) on Vimeo

Patient No More Virtual Exhibit, Longmore Institute at San Francisco State University, Patient No More | Patient No More (

504 at Fifty Podcast John Wodatch 1 and 2, Produced by Southeast ADA Center, the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, and the ADA National Network, 2023 Episodes – Section 504 at 50

Kitty Cone 504 Sit-In Victory Speech, Recorded by Lucy Muir, April 1977,Stream Kitty Cone 504 Sit-In Victory Speech, April 1977 by timesawastin | Listen online for free on SoundCloud

Last updated: March 21, 2024