Section 504 Sit Ins

A group of protestors, many are wheelchair users, with Judy Heumann in the forefront holding a handwritten sign that says "Sign 504 regs NOW."

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was signed on September 23rd, 1973, which included Section 504 that caught the attention of the disability community and activists. 

Section 504 stated: 
"No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705 (20) of this title, shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, 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 or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service."

This was a huge win for disabled people's rights, as they were continually barred access from schools, public transportation, state and federal government buildings and so much else based solely on their disability. However, after a bill is signed into law, it still needs enabling regulations to tell the court systems how to interpret the law. Without these enabling regulations, the law is unenforceable. Nixon resigned from office before the enabling regulations were signed. Then President Ford’s administration said they needed time to study the law and the proposed enabling regulations already on the table. His term ended and still the enabling regulations were not signed. When campaigning, the then Governor Jimmy Carter promised that, if elected, his administration would sign the regulations. When he took office, he then claimed that they also needed more time to study the regulations, more than three years after they had originally been proposed.

The department in charge of signing the regulations was the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, also called HEW. The man at the head of this department was Secretary Joseph Califano. A group called the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities had been keeping track of the progress of the Rehabilitation Act and the Section 504 regulations for more than three years now. They gave the Carter Administration and Secretary Califano a deadline of April 5th, 1977 to sign the enabling regulations. When Secretary Califano failed to sign the regulations in that time, they organized protests around the country. One rally was held at the national HEW offices in Washington DC, and nine others were held at regional offices in Atlanta, Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

San Francisco’s protest was led by a collection of people, Ed Roberts, Kitty Cone, Judy Heumann, Mary Jane Owen, Steve McClelland and many more. They had a rally in front of the regional HEW offices with around 300 protestors of various disabilities and races, and many from different social activism groups, truly a diverse crowd. There were speakers lined up who talked about their disabilities and how the regulations (or lack of regulations) would impact them personally. There was a sound/microphone system set up, ramps built to get onto the stage and sign language interpreters so that the rally was accessible to all. Near what seemed to be the end of the rally, after pumping everyone up with their stories and chanting, Judy Heumann rolled onto the stage and said “Let’s go and tell HEW the federal government cannot steal our civil rights!” She immediately turned and rolled straight towards the offices and much of the crowd followed her inside. The protestors took the elevators up to the HEW offices and marched in to see the regional director, Joe Maldonado. When asked about the status of the enabling regulations for Section 504, Maldonado said “What is Section 504?” When they asked more employees of HEW, no one had ever heard of Section 504 before. When told that the protestors would not be leaving until they got assurances that the enabling regulations would be signed, regional director Maldonado left the office. The protestors decided to stay the night in the offices and continue their protest. 75 protestors and a few personal care attendants decided to stay. They started using the HEW offices as their own base of operations and called to check in on the other groups in the other cities. Only a few cities had also refused to leave the HEW offices: Denver, DC, Los Angeles and New York City, but the largest other group was DC with around 50 protestors.

Secretary Califano met with the DC protestors and told them he planned on signing the regulations, he just needed more time to study them. He then ordered the protestors to be guarded and would not allow any food or medicine to enter the building. The DC protestors only lasted 28 hours with no access to basic health necessities or nourishment, but this poor treatment of their DC compatriots gave the San Francisco group a resurgence of energy and purpose. The second day of the protest, they held a press conference in the HEW offices and first educated the press on the correct terminology to use, and then continued to go through why they were there and what they were doing. By the end of the 2nd day, the San Francisco group had grown to 110 protestors who all committed to staying another night.

On the 3rd day, security was told to not allow anyone into the building, meaning the protestors now had no access to food, medicine or clean clothes. They shut off the hot water and blocked outgoing phone calls, so they had only 2 pay phones that they were able to use for contact with the outside. Media was reporting that their sit in was only symbolic, due to DC’s sit in ending, so they reached out to an ally, Reverend Cecil Williams, who organized a vigil outside the HEW offices, to draw attention to the fact that they were still there and still fighting. News came in that Califano was reworking the regulations and watering them down, and that the Denver and New York City protests had folded. Los Angeles was down to 35 protestors.

With the spotlight of the vigil being held outside, other tokens of support and endorsement started coming in, including from California’s own Governor Jerry Brown. Every protestor committed to staying another night, and after a call from protestor Brad Lomax, the Black Panthers pushed through the door to deliver their dinner. The Black Panthers used no force, but rather promised to make a scene if the protestors were left to starve, and the security guards decided to let them in to deliver their meals every night for the rest of the protest. But that same night, security guards told everyone to get out of the building because there was reportedly a bomb. After telling the entire group about the bomb threat, every single protestor agreed that it was not a real threat and that they would stay.

On the 4th day, the protestors woke up to the building still standing and the final 2 pay phones jammed. Through the news they found out that the Los Angeles group had disbanded. They also came up with a way to work around not having access to phone lines: sign language. Their deaf protestors would sign through a window looking over the plaza to the protestors at the vigil below. These protestors would then take the message to the appropriate people on the outside. Through their respect of the building and the people working in the building, they also gained the support of 100 HEW employees, who signed a petition in support of the protestors and sent it on to Secretary Califano himself.

On Friday, April 15th, Congressmen George Miller and Phil Burton held a congressional hearing in the HEW offices so that the protestors could attend. Secretary Califano sent a representative named Gene Eidenberg who, after listening to testimony from the protestors, ran out of the room and hid. Congressman Burton had to chase after him and yell for him to go back to the room. Eventually he went back and listened to five more hours of testimony. They are told that Secretary Califano is still looking towards a “separate but equal” solution in his reworking of the regulations. The protestors decide as a group, after putting it to a vote, to send a delegation to DC to speak with Secretary Califano himself. First, they just need to raise the funds.

On Sunday, April 17th, Willy Dicks, a member of the International Association of Machinists, hears a sermon by Reverend Williams and immediately walks over to the HEW offices to give them a check for $1000. He talks to other Machinists and they agree to pay for the expenses of sending the 34-person delegation team from San Francisco to DC. The San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, shows up on the same day with a team of medical professionals to attend to the protestors neglected medical needs, and also brings things like soap, towels, cream for wheelchair sores and hoses to attach to faucets, so that the protestors can wash themselves.

Upon getting to DC, the delegation team goes straight to Secretary Califano’s personal home to hold a candlelight vigil throughout the night, where they quietly sing songs of freedom and hymns. They would later learn that he left through the backdoor so he did not have to listen to it. The delegation stayed at a local church, Luther Place Memorial, and immediately set up meetings with the 2 original sponsors of Section 504, Senators Harrison Williams and Alan Cranston. Senator Cranston was tough, but as soon as they quoted Califano’s statement of “separate but equal,” Cranston agreed to write a statement in support of their protest. In the meeting with Senator Williams, he quickly agreed to join in on Senator Cranston’s endorsement. They met with other officials in the department of domestic affairs, but while they personally agreed that it was time for the administration to act, it was an issue for HEW and not for the president. They were unable to schedule a meeting with the president, and found out that there was not a single accessible bathroom in the entire White House. They held a candlelight vigil outside of the White House that evening.

On Friday, April 23rd, the delegation went to the DC HEW offices to speak with Califano, but security guards barred them from even entering the building. And on Saturday, they again went to Califano’s house for a candlelight vigil. He again left through the back door, and would continue to do this several more times. On Sunday, they picketed outside of President Carter’s church. He and his wife also left out the back door. Carter ran with an “Open Door Administration” slogan, so they decided to use that against them. They continuously put out press statements talking about their new back door policy.

On Tuesday, April 27th, they held a protest right outside of the White House. About 100 protestors came in person, but many people sent their endorsements and support, including 7 members of the US Congress. The rally at the White House also reinvigorated protests around the country in Dallas and Houston, Texas; Hartford, Connecticut; Eugene, Oregon; Kansas City, Missouri; and San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. That night, feeling that they were near victory, they decided to send home most of the DC delegation back to San Francisco.

On Thursday, April 28th, the enabling regulations were finally signed, without the reworks that Califano had proposed. The protestors in San Francisco did not leave the HEW offices until Saturday, April 30th. They had formed such close bonds with each other in the 25 days of their protest that no one wanted to leave. They had successfully pulled off the longest sit-in of a federal building on record, and they wanted to have one last night to celebrate their winning of their long-deserved rights.


1.       Heumann, Judith, and Kristen Joiner. Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. Beacon Press, 2020.

2.       Ingram, Patricia, director. Narration by Rosalie Wilkins, We Won't Go Away, The Berkeley Revolution, 8 June 2020, Accessed 10 Nov. 2021.

3.       Newnham, Nicole and Jim LeBrecht, directors. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Crip Camp, Netflix, 2020, Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.

4.       Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 (1973).

5. D'Lil, HolLynn. Judy Heumann, Holding the Sign, and Kitty Cone, Right, Protested in Front of the White House on April 26, 1977. Washington DC, 26 Apr. 1977.


Associated Place(s)

Event date:

5 Apr 1977 to 30 Apr 1977

Event Source: