A Fun Look into Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

9 Nov 2021

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was monumental in advancing the accessibility rights movement. It protected against federal institutions discriminating against people with disabilities and gave way to the Americans with Disabilities Act. This Drunk History video provides a fun yet digestible look at the protests which allowed for change to happen. We recognize this resource strays far from our usual content, so for a more sober look at section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, we recommend watching Crip Camp.

Derek Waters: Cheers to you.

Suzi Barrett: And you.

Derek Waters: To everybody.

Suzi Barrett: To everybody and you.

Derek Waters: And myself. Thank you.

Suzi Barrett: Mm-hmm. And me.

Derek Waters: And that includes you.

Suzi Barrett: Great, thank you.

Derek Waters: Mm-hmm.

Suzi Barrett: Hello. I’m Suzi Barrett, and today we’re talking about the Section 504 sit-in.

Derek Waters: I’ll sit in for this.

Suzi Barrett: I’ll sit in with you.

Derek Waters: [chuckles]

Suzi Barrett: Okay. Act one, scene one. A backdrop appears slowly in front of the audience’s eyes. What’s on this backdrop? The 50s and the 60s. We got people with disabilities being treated not as normal citizens. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can’t just, like, walk into a bank and apply for a job. There’s no access, and they’re like, uh, [bleep] you. You use a wheelchair. Or, like, you can’t see and therefore [bleep] off, dude. A disability is dismiss-ability, basically.

Derek Waters: Wow.

Suzi Barrett: Put that in your [bleep] pipe.

Derek Waters: I will. And I’ll smoke that.

Suzi Barrett: Will you?

Derek Waters: I will. I like this pipe.

Suzi Barrett: Okay. So here comes 1973. Richard Nixon signs this thing called the Rehabilitation Act, and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is the section that says you can’t, uh– a federal institution can’t, like, uh, you know, discriminate against people with a disability. So section 504 needs to be signed. So–so–so Joseph Califano, the head of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare–HEW– was like, well, this sounds like a lot of work.
So, like, what do we have to do to our buildings? What’s braille? I mean, if this is that, and that is what, and what this is what we’re talking about, and–[snoring]

Suzi Barrett and Derek Waters: [laughs]

Suzi Barrett: So it sits there for four [bleep] years, and he doesn’t sign it. So the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, headed by Dr. Frank Bowe, are like, what the [bleep] [bleep]? Make us equal. We have rights. We are citizens. [spits] Sign this by April 5th or else. And “else” is not a “Frozen” character. “Else” is a [bleep] disability surprise. [burps] I feel way drunker than I should be.

Derek Waters: You’re all good. You’re all good.

Suzi Barrett: [laughing] [groans] Okay. So the deadline, April 5th, comes and it goes. And at the federal building in San Francisco, this woman, Judy Heumann, rolls up, and doorman’s like, oh– [stammering] I’m sorry, ma’am. Do you need some help? Would you like some punch or maybe a cookie? And she’s like, nope. Uh… me and my 150 friends would actually like to roll over your ass…
[funky rock music]
‘Cause we’re about to make a change.
♪ ♪
And this started the first-ever protest for the disability movement. All over the nation at all these federal buildings, protests erupt. People with disabilities are like, [bleep] you! We’re gonna camp out in your hallways. We’re gonna sit on your mother[bleep] desk. But none of these protests across the country lasted more than 28 hours except for San Francisco, where the days start dragging on, and people have needs. Like, oh, my God. I don’t have my ventilator. I can’t [bleep] breathe. I don’t even know why I’m speaking right now. I’m wasting oxygen.

And, like, the news is covering this. And people start really feeling for what’s happening here. And the floodgates open, and you got people bringing in medicine, coming in with food. The Black Panthers show up. Everyone’s sitting in, not just people with disabilities. It’s allies and people with disabilities. I’s veterans coming home from Vietnam being like, man, we got you. Jefferson Airplane shows up, like, we’re Jefferson Airplane. Get it–you know, get your shit on. We love you! If Woodstock was in an office building
and filled with wheelchairs and medical supplies, this is Woodstock.

And all these people are finding a community that they hadn’t had in person until now. And finally, they get the attention of Washington. So they’re like, okay, okay, let’s, um, let’s make a little hearing, and we’ll hear your little disability complaints.

When people start noticing that they’re being dicks, then they start trying to fix their dicks. [laughs]
That’s my favorite Dr. Seuss quote.

Derek Waters: [laughter]

Suzi Barrett: I’m so dumb. Hey.

Derek Waters: Oh, hey, Suzi. [laughs]

Suzi Barrett: Oh, hey. This is a real [bleep]

Derek Waters: Is that too much?

Suzi Barrett: No. [laughs] Okay. So Judy Heumann gets 20 of her friends from her activist group in San Francisco, and they haul ass to Washington.

Boom. We’re in Washington, D.C. And she’s like, if you are going to claim to be a country of the land of the free, then you have to include us in it. Otherwise, yikes, do we have a weird revolution that’s about to happen. So here’s Senator Alan Cranston. You know, he’s nodding his head. “Oh, yeah. Oh, my gosh, yeah. Oh, I’m so feeling it.” Judy Heumann’s not having any of it. She’s like, I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t act like you understand what I’m saying because you don’t understand. We’re going through this shit. You ain’t. Party’s over. Peace out. Sign the shit. Crowd goes wild. Everyone’s cheering for Judy. Love it.

Then Frank Bow steps up, and he’s like, we’re not even second-class citizens. We’re third-class citizens. And here come the tears. How do you not cry after that? You know, why would you want to be on the side of history
that categorizes people rather than the side of history that’s, like, liberating
and, like, let’s be the piñata.

Derek Waters: Yeah, break it and let everyone come out.

Suzi Barrett: Yeah! Let’s make–let’s make candy.

Derek Waters: Okay.

Suzi Barrett: Califano’s like, ooh. I, uh, funny thing.
Uh… fine! I’ll sign it. Jubilation. 504 was signed, and this opened the floodgates for the American Disabilities Act for ramps, for braille, for everything that we know today that is for disability access.

[triumphant music]

So Judy Heumann’s people have been in the federal building in San Francisco for 26 days. And these protestors are coming out so happy, fists raised in victory. And they’re loving it because they’re having a voice in their place in history.

♪ ♪

Derek Waters: Cheers.

Suzi Barrett: Cheers.

♪ ♪

Derek Waters: To everybody.

Suzi Barrett: To literally everybody.