Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.


Handicapped citizens gather at the entrance to the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston's Government Center to protest the Federal government's delay in implementing the rehabilitation act passed by Congress in 1973 on April 5, 1977. (Photo: Joe Runci/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Disability Revolution We All Need

Whether we're talking about righting the wrongs of poverty, patriarchy, racism, or lack of care, affirmative conduct may be required.

Laura Flanders

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.

Living free, with equality, dignity, equity, and justice requires more than law, it requires "affirmative conduct."

"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 and Andrea LeVant of LeVant Consulting on Disability Justice on the importance of creating inclusive culture this week on The Laura Flanders Show. Catch it on public television across the country and as a podcast. Subscribe and find out more at  

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including "Bushwomen: How They Won the White House for Their Man" (2005).  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media, and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

'A Devastating Failure': Eviction Ban Expires as House Goes on Vacation and Biden Refuses to Act

"We’re now in an eviction emergency," said Rep. Cori Bush. "Eleven million are now at risk of losing their homes at any moment. The House needs to reconvene and put an end to this crisis."

Jake Johnson ·

With Election Days Away, Bernie Sanders Headlines Get-Out-the-Vote Rally for Nina Turner

In his keynote speech, Sanders said corporate interests are pulling out all the stops to defeat Turner because "they know that when she is elected, she is going to stand up and take them on in the fight for justice."

Jake Johnson ·

Bush, Pressley, and Omar Sleep Outside Capitol to Demand Extension of Eviction Moratorium

Rep. Cori Bush, who was formerly unhoused, slammed her Democratic colleagues who "chose to go on vacation early today rather than staying to vote to keep people in their homes."

Jake Johnson ·

As Progressives Call for End to Blockade, Biden Announces More Sanctions Against Cuba

The move comes after Democratic leadership in the House blocked an amendment to roll back limits on how much money people in the United States can send to family on the island nation.

Jessica Corbett ·

Progressives Issue Dire Warning as House Bill to Extend Eviction Moratorium Dies

"If Congress does not act now, the fallout of the eviction crisis will undoubtedly set us backwards as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravish our communities, needlessly contributing to more death and destruction."

Brett Wilkins ·