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The 504 Sit-In and the Path to Disability Rights

It’s easy to take for granted the protections and services available to those with hearing loss today. Just consider the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008. These laws made it illegal for employers to discriminate against those with disabilities like hearing loss, while requiring public and private facilities to make reasonable accommodations.

Prior to these laws, such disabilities were often viewed as the individual’s own responsibility, and discrimination was common. Achieving the protections of the ADA and ADAAA required a great deal of social activism, and an important event from 1977 known as the “504 Sit-In” helped to pave the way.

Fighting for a Common Cause

The event gets its name from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which aimed to guarantee the civil rights of people with disabilities. However, this law lacked important regulations about how disabilities were defined, what constituted discrimination, and how protections would be enforced. When the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), the government agency responsible for implementing those regulations, failed to meet a deadline of April 4, 1977 set by the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, the group responded with planned protests around the country.

The protest in San Francisco was the most effective. About 120 disabled protesters and their supporters, including sign language interpreters, caregivers, and parents of children with disabilities, took over the HEW building in the city and occupied it for 26 days. While they continued to demand for the long-sought Section 504 regulations, the protestors learned to take care of themselves and each other, marking the first time people of all different disabilities came together for a common cause.

Since it was difficult to communicate with their supporters outside the building, deaf protesters played a key role. They would use sign language to send messages to interpreters on the ground, and then shared news from the outside world with their fellow protesters.

Legacy of the 504 Sit-In

The ongoing protest, as well as a parallel protest in Washington, D.C., continued to gain media attention, while pressuring HEW officials to finally act. On April 28, 1977, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano signed the Section 504 regulations, providing greater clarity about the law. These regulations also served as a template for the more extensive disability protections of the ADA.

Overall, the 504 Sit-In showed what can happen when people from all different walks of life come together to fight for what they believe in. The event also helped to ensure those with hearing loss, and all other disabilities, enjoy the same rights as everyone else.