I’ve been stuck in 1977 lately. That was the year my dad died of a heart attack. On Feb. 10 of this year, I will be the exact age — to the day — that Dad was when he died. But 1977 was a landmark year for other reasons — reasons that still affect our lives, whether we know it or not.
On April 5, 1977, hundreds of people with disabilities occupied U.S. government buildings across the nation, protesting the failure of three presidents — Nixon, Ford and Carter — to sign Section 504 regulations into law. As part of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the regulations were crucial to the future of all people with disabilities. Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann, among others, led the most effective protest, occupying the Health, Education and Welfare building in San Francisco for nearly four weeks until HEW Secretary Joseph Califano finally signed the Section 504 regulations into law.
As important as that moment was to those of us with disabilities, it barely registers as a blip on the historic radar of mainstream America. A very heavy book that I often consult, Chronicle of the 20th Century, a collection of thousands of news stories about important moments in U.S. history, contains a mere sentence: “April 28, Washington: HEW bans discrimination against 35 million disabled Americans.” No mention of the protests that forced the banning of discrimination. No names of those involved. No details about historic suffering. It is as if the U.S. government suddenly decided to give people with disabilities a gift.
Imagine a story about the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 failing to mention Martin Luther King, Jr., freedom marchers, or oppression. This same chronicle of American history does not even record the related victory that came later — the signing of the ADA in 1990. Not a single word refers to what has been called the Civil Rights Act for people with disabilities. At least, not in this weighty publication that calls itself “the ultimate record of our times.”
Nevertheless, progress did take a leap forward in 1977. In a personal triumph, I was hired as a community college instructor in September of that year after years of