A powerful scene in the Peabody Award-winning documentary Crip Camp shows a sit-down protest by over 100 mostly disabled Americans inside the old federal office building in San Francisco. The year was 1977, the mood: defiant, angry, excited. At issue was government enforcement of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the first federal law ever to ban discrimination against people with disabilities. 

504 was important because, while the ’73 Act had banned discrimination, it was 504 that laid out what that meant. It wasn’t enough, for example, for a bus driver to stop the bus for a passenger in a wheelchair if that passenger had no way, actually, to board that bus. 

“Affirmative conduct may be required,” was the language used in the section. 

As Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution shows, the sit-ins sparked solidarity from every quarter of the social justice movement. While protestors inside strategized and signed, an ever bigger crowd massed outside. Among them were Black Panthers, lesbian and gay activists, peaceniks, pastors, and hippies. 

Asked why a disabled people’s protest over an obscure piece of federal law attracted so much solidarity, Elaine Brown, then the leader of the Black Panthers, said that the activists’ demands resonated with the Panther’s notions about freedom and systemic change. 

“If you can’t live with dignity, you’re oppressed,” she told the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability. 

Living free, with equality, dignity, equity, and justice requires more than law, it requires “affirmative conduct.” It requires systemic change. 

The San Francisco 504 sit-in lasted 28 days. It prompted a Congressional hearing, forced government action, and eventually, many of the provisions of 504 were written into the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed on July 26, 1990. Some disabled activists call that their Independence Day. 

But the message of the sit-in, which was sustained, as the film shows, by hot food from the Panthers’ kitchen and baked goods from a local lesbian co-op, was that “independence” is no guarantee of justice.   

Whether we’re talking about righting the wrongs of poverty, patriarchy, racism, or lack of care, affirmative conduct may be required. Systemic change. And that’s the demand the disability justice movement is making today. History shows they’re worth listening to. 

You can watch or hear my interview with Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, co producer/directors of Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution and Andrea LeVant of LeVant Consulting on Disability Justice on the importance of creating inclusive culture this week on The Laura Flanders Show.

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