How Exceptional Was The Time and The Place?

By Eddie YtuarteDisability History Photo

Kim Nielsen, who is interviewed in our special, shows us how race, gender, class, and even immigration status interweaves with disability.  She helps us realize that even some non-disabled groups of people were treated as having a disability as a way to keep them as second-class citizens.    

I live in the California bay area.   A region sometimes seen as a hotbed of progressive political activism.  And we, who are activists, are rightfully proud of belonging to that tradition.  For those of us over sixty, our awareness of activism in the second half of the twentieth century is very present. We observed it, read about it, watched it on the television set, heard about it on the fledging Pacifica network—best of all, some of us were blessed enough to have lived it.  We still live it.   

But organizing for disability rights did not begin in California nor did it begin in the 1960s.   Different organizations laid the groundwork for us.  Let’s highlight some of these developments and acquaint our selves with that rich past.  

1918 Disabled Veterans Rehabilitation At the end of the Great War or World War One, s large number of veterans return with disabilities.  In 1920 Congress passes the first major rehabilitation program for soldiers.  It’s a bill funding vocational rehabilitation.  It guarantees federal money for job counseling and vocational training for disabled.   

1935  Disability Protest Results in WPA Jobs  To protest the fact that their requests for employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) have been stamped ‘PH’ (physically handicapped), 300 members of the League for the Physically Handicapped stage a nine-day sit in at the Home Relief Bureau of New York City. Eventually, they help secure several thousand jobs nationwide. The League of the Physically Handicapped is accepted as the first organization of people with disabilities by people with disabilities.

Rosemary Kenney as a young woman

Rosemary Kennedy as a young woman

 1941  Future President’s Sister Lobotomized      John F. Kennedy’s twenty-three year old sister Rosemary had mild retardation and began exhibiting aggressive behavior as a young adult.   Mostly due to actions by her father, Joseph Kennedy, Rosemary underwent a prefrontal lobotomy as a “cure.”   The operation failed, resulting in total incapacity. 

Rosemary Kennedy 34 yrs after lobotomy with nun companion

Rosemary Kennedy 34 yrs after lobotomy with nun companion

To avoid scandal, Rosemary was moved permanently to institutions until 2005 when she died at age 86 of natural causes.





1950s Beginning of the National Barrier-Free Standards  In the 1950s, disabled veterans and people with disabilities begin the barrier-free movement. The combined efforts of the Veterans Administration, The President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, and the National Easter Seals Society, among others, results in the development of national standards for “barrier-free” buildings.   

1953 Radiation Experiment Conducted Without Consent Clemens Benda, clinical director at the Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts, an institution for boys with mental retardation, invites 100 teenage students to participate in a “science club” in which they will be privy to special outings and extra snacks. In a letter requesting parental consent, Benda mentions an experiment in which “blood samples are taken after a special breakfast meal containing a certain amount of calcium,” but makes no mention of the inclusion of the radioactive substances that are fed to the boys in their oatmeal.   

Billy Barty

Billy Barty

1957  Billy Barty Organizes Little People   Actor Billy Barty makes a national appeal to the little people of America to converge in Reno, Nevada.  Twenty answer the call, creating the Midgets of America organization. Later renamed the Little People of America, his organization becomes the largest in the world devoted to people of short stature.    

1962  Ed Roberts Fights for Admission to University    Ed Roberts, a young man with polio, enrolls in the University of California, Berkeley.  After his admission is rejected, he fights to get the decision overturned. He becomes the father of the Independent Living Movement and helps establish the first Center for Independent Living (CIL).   

1965  Civil Rights Bill Bypasses Persons with Disabilities   The Civil Rights Act is passed. While this act helps end discrimination against African Americans and women in the workplace, it does not make any provision for people with disabilities.  Individuals with disabilities still lack opportunities to participate in and be contributing members of society, are denied access to employment, and are discriminated against based on disability.  (Information from The National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth (NCLD/Y).   

1962-1971  Birth of the Independent Living Movement   Closer to home, the Rolling Quads made their appearance at University of California Berkeley in the late sixties.  These were mostly white disabled men who used wheelchairs and one of their leaders was Ed Roberts.  Their activism first centered around the university but eventually, in 1971, led to the first ILC in the country, the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley.  The focus of this disability rights movement was on the concept of living independently and building an adaptable environment.   Independence is fostered if we can adapt that environment according to our needs.  Often we use the term “Independent Living Movement” as a way to categorize this type of activism.    

1973  The 504 Demonstrations A federal disability civil rights bill passes in 1973 called the Rehabilitation Act.  It is not implemented because no regulations are issued by the then federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare  (HEW) under President Jimmy Carter.  When advocacy failed to produce the regulations, people with disabilities take it to the streets, or the buildings in this case.  As a way to influence the Carter administration, activists across the country organized sit-ins at the eight regional offices of HEW.  The San Francisco demonstration sustained itself with approximately 120 protestors, going 28 days and eventually the Carter administration caved in.   This 1973 sit in may well be the most celebrated day of bay area disability organizing. 

Kitty Cone Speaking about the issues of the protest.  Photo courtesy of NPR.

Kitty Cone speaking about the 504 protest issues.    Photo courtesy of NPR.

To quote a little bit from Kitty Cone from her paper called a “History of the 504 Sit In.” “The composition of the sit-in represented the spectrum of the disability community with participation from people with a wide variety of disabilities, from different racial, social, and economic backgrounds, and ages from adults to kids with disabilities and their parents.”    Cone also notes that there was assistance from the Glide Church in San Francisco and Black Panthers.

One of the characteristics of this part of our history is that the movement, once it gets into high gear, is not an operation dominated by white males.  Perhaps we will never come up with statistical break down of racial or gender characteristics of the activists of this period, but there were many women involved, perhaps a majority.  Others have noted there were also many disabled lesbians who participated.  It is unlikely that this action could have sustained itself through the 28 day sit-in if the disabled activists had relied solely on support from the disability community.    

The Black Panthers were valuable in their assistance, including heavy donations of food.  Perhaps their greatest contribution was Brad Lomax, a disabled Panther member who was also a key participant in the disability activism of that period.  Others groups, besides the Glide Church and the Panthers, included:
*  the Butterfly Brigade, a group of gay men who patrolled San Francisco city streets on the lookout for violence against Gays,
*  local and national labor organizations,
*  members of Delancy Street, a group serving recovering drug users and released felons, and
*  the Chicano group, Mission Rebels.  

S.F. Black Panthers at the approximate time of the 504 demonstrations

S.F. Black Panthers at the approximate time of the 504 demonstrations

Brad Lomax’s activism on behalf of the black disabled community eventually led to the creation of a satellite of the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in East Oakland, targeting the black population.  Unfortunately, this satellite lasted only a couple of years.  More recently Berkeley’s CIL opened up satellites in East Oakland and in Fruitvale, the latter geared to serve the Latino community.    (Above taken from Susan Schweik paper on Brad Lomax and the 504 occupation)

1960s-1990s  Whiteness Perception Beginning with the Rolling Quads, there is a perception that the fledging disability activism was a White project, although not necessarily male dominated.   I agree with that assessment but see indications that this is changing.  Organizations have been formed aimed specifically to serve and/or advocate for non-white populations.   Disability-related non-profits are hiring more and more people of color with disabilities.  Indeed, the Berkeley Center for Independent Living hired its first African American executive director several years ago.  

I do want to make one broad political point based on my understanding of how social change works.  Some of us at Pushing Limits do not agree that there is an “exceptionalism” in the bay area, that California disabled activists are so special that the movement could not have occurred elsewhere in the United  States.  The 28 day occupation of the San Francisco federal government building was a spectacular achievement as the sit-ins in the other seven cities could not sustain themselves for that length of time.  Nonetheless, the disability movement and the independent living movement would still have been developed along roughly the same lines.  The contemporary disability rights movement/independent living movement would it happened because the conditions were right for it—just as the racial justice movement, the women’s movement and the queer movement were all ready to break out anew.  

Our movement was not a function of geography, it was a function of conditions occurring at a certain time.    The movement continues to solidify the gains of the past and fulfill new goals in our continuing quest for better lives for people with disabilities in the U.S.

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