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Disability rights activist Judith “Judy” Heumann spoke in Sherman Function Hall on Thursday about what she has learned during her 40-year career in disability activism. The lecture and following discussion, “The Journey to Achieving Equality: Past, Present, and Future of Disability Activism,” was organized by the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy and by the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy. It was part of a series of Sankofa Community Conversations hosted by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
Heumann’s activism received national attention in 1977 when she organized a sit-in at the Federal Office Building in San Francisco to protest the delayed implementation of regulations stipulated in section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The act was one of the first pieces of legislation to protect the rights of Americans with disabilities.
Section 504 says that people with disabilities shall not “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.”
Although activists coordinated sit-ins across the country, only the San Francisco sit-in lasted longer than a few days, Heumann explained. It went for 28 days, supported by activists both with and without disabilities. The Black Panther party delivered hot meals for the demonstrators, and the mayor of San Francisco also helped by providing air mattresses and portable showers. This cooperation was present among California activist organizations long before the sit-in. Different activist coalitions communicated with each other so that they weren’t “going after each other’s money” in fundraising, she explained.
The sit-in received renewed attention following recent coverage on a segment of the Comedy Central series “Drunk History,” which organizers screened at the event.
Heumann said Candace Cable, a gold medal Paralympian, told Comedy Central to do a segment on the sit-in. The episode got the most important details correct, but she noted that the “hearing” where she and other citizens with disabilities testified was held in San Francisco, not in Washington, D.C. Still, she said it was commendable that the show hired actors with disabilities and accurately depicted the involvement of citizens both with and without disabilities.
One of the most important things about the demonstration, Heumann said, was that the non-disabled community learned more about disability, race, gender and sexual orientation.