“Civil rights” usually referred to the fight against racial segregation. In several ways, this struggle set the template for other civil rights issues, including disability rights. First, cases such as Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated that disadvantaged groups could gain protections in the courts. Second, movement leaders found that nonviolent protests could gain public sympathy and put pressure on elected officials. Third, civil rights statutes that helped African Americans would also point to means by which the government could protect other excluded groups.
In remembering disabled activists who were instrumental in the creation of America's disability rights movement and imagining what a more inclusive movement for social justice and full civil rights for the future could look like, we keep coming back to the partnership during the late 1970s between the Black Panther Party and the 504 activists, disability rights advocates who were pushing for implementation of a long-delayed section (section 504) of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Prior to the 1990 enactment the Americans with Disabilities Act, section 504 was the most important disability rights legislation in the US. Modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 prohibited those who received federal aid from discriminating against any "otherwise qualified individuals with a disability." This stellar example of bridging movements resulted in the longest occupation of a federal building in US history in San Francisco -- and it is a historical moment that deserves more recognition, especially as America marks the 30th anniversary of the ADA.
Brad Lomax, a Black Panther who was also a pivotal figure in the movement for disability rights and helped lead the (ultimately successful) sit-in, was one of many activists who worked to make disability rights a presence and priority in the broader civil rights movement. Donald Galloway, who headed blind services and the Black Caucus at Berkeley's Center for Independent Living, recalled: "Brad was our linkage to the Black Panthers." Lomax brought together the growing disability rights movement, which Galloway remembered as "predominantly white," and the Black community in the Bay Area.David Shribman at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
This kind of connection, sadly, is too often lost or forgotten when the stories of both movements are told: members within these movements are rarely aware that worlds and identities collided in the name of freedom and justice in ways that reshaped history.
“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” President George H.W. Bush said when he signed the law in 1990. It was the disabled version of the Book of Exodus sentiment — Let my people go! — that Harriet Tubman used as a code for enslaved people escaping to the North and that Al Jolson and Paul Robeson made famous.
That phrase is enshrined in the American Songbook, in the hearts of the marginalized and the striving, in the soaring words of a patrician president who claimed the ADA was the achievement of which he was most proud, in the American spirit and, 30 years ago, in the American legal code.
“President Bush truly was passionate about disability rights and felt the ADA was the greatest civil rights act in the country after the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” Andrew H. Card, deputy White House chief of staff at the time and interim chair of the George and Barbara Bush Foundation, said in an interview. “He used to say that disability knew no barrier between ethnic groups and religious affiliation. People with disabilities were pushed aside, and he was proud to make them part of the fabric of America.”