In the spring of 1977, I was a 20 year old about to graduate from high school and my future was crumbling around me. My parents, English teacher, guidance counselor, others with disabilities I looked up to like Phyllis Zlotnick, Armand Legault Bev Jackson and Edie Harris and even the Connecticut Division of Vocational Rehabilitation all were audacious enough to believe that this kid with a communication board and an IBM Selectric had what it took to go to college. However, I had applied to, visited and been rejected by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana – the only school in the nation that I knew of which was accessible and welcomed students with disabilities. My world and expectations began to shrink. However, then I began to hear of this new law called 504 and those just like me who were sitting in to force the Carter Administration to make it come alive. It would be several years before I met the likes of Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann and Hale Zukas and decades more before as a Clinton era official I proudly visited the federal office building in San Francisco where the sit in were staged.
It was the evening when watching Walter Cronkite I heard the San Francisco sit in succeeded in forcing Carter and Califano to enforce Section 5O4, though; that I knew my life and that of the Nation would change for the better. A rush of pride, tears and joy swept over me that day. Those same feeling of absolute certainty and hope have enveloped me three other times since then: The day Senator Tom Harkin dedicated the final passage of ADA to children with disabilities born that day; the day Mandela freed all of his fellow South Africans regardless of the hue of their bodies from the crushing bondage of apartheid; and most recently, when Micah Fialka-Feldman, a 25 year old student with an intellectual disability won the right to live in a dorm at Michigan’s Oakland University where he is taking classes.
History is never linear, progress is excruciatingly slow and fate is not to be left to chance. We must shape and be ever ready to be shaped by it. The 504 sit ins and the lessons Fialka-Feldman offer important reminders of this. To borrow a phrase from the late, great Tim Cook – for a little history worth knowing on the 504 sit in and the debt we all must continue to pay forward go to:
The Power of 504 (open caption) part 1 and part 2 on DREDF videos
Best wishes for a more just 2010!