Dennis Billups: he helped lead a long, fiery sit-in – and changed disabled lives

by Steve Rose: For Complete Post, click here…

Blinded by medical intervention as a baby, Billups became one of the leaders of a groundbreaking, world-shaking 1977 protest. He talks about what drives him and why Barack Obama loves his energy.

My mother used to tell us we had to be really good,” says Dennis Billups. “There were always two strikes against us – so you had to hit the third strike out of the park.” The “strikes” were being Black and being blind. And growing up in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s, both were potential sources of open discrimination. “There were times when, even walking in our own neighbourhood, we would get: ‘You’re supposed to stay inside.’ ‘Don’t you have a dog?’ ‘Don’t you have a cane?’” At times this could turn physical. “Some neighbours would turn water on us and stuff like that.” Finding employment was also a challenge. “Being blind, they didn’t have to do too much except say: ‘We’re not going to hire you,’ or: ‘We don’t think you can do this.’ So it was a glass ceiling, more or less. I’m sure with my twin sister there was a lot more, being a woman, African American and blind as well, but she was a hell of a fighter.”

Billups is a fighter, too, albeit one whose principal weapons are determination, congeniality, optimism – and a mellifluous voice. Now in his late 60s, speaking on Zoom from the San Francisco public library, he still radiates an infectious positivity that helped him as a young man when he played a key role in a lesser-known battle for civil rights.

In the 70s, as the civil rights struggle against racial inequality had borne some results, a second, less conspicuous battle was still being waged – against disability discrimination. The decade was a turning point, a time when many of the rights and provisions that people with disabilities have gained were won. In April 1977, this call for equality came to a head with the 504 Sit-In, when more than 120 people with disabilities – Billups among them – took the radical decision to occupy the San Francisco offices of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), where they remained for a staggering 24 days.

The sit-in took its name from section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which stipulated that no individual with a disability could be excluded or discriminated against by federal-funded entities such as schools and government offices. Bringing in section 504 would mean putting into place concrete provisions that could change the lives of people with disabilities – such as access for the blind and wheelchair-users on streets, on public transport and in buildings, along with disabled bathrooms and interpretation for the deaf.

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