Lobbying for Disability Rights: The U.S. Experience

A white building in front of a blue sky

Section 504 Sit-in Strike

In 1973, the U.S. government passed the Rehabilitation Act into law. Section 504 in the Rehabilitation Act prohibits all programs receiving U.S. federal financial assistance from discriminating against people with disabilities. This was the first legislation to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities in the U.S.

However, during the first few years after it was passed, Section 504 was not implemented. The government took a long time to write regulations to define how Section 504 should be enforced. In addition, the people doing the writing were making the regulations so weak that they would not have protected the rights of people with disabilities.

A large group of people with disabilities and supporters entered a federal building in San Francisco, California and started a sit-in strike, with a demand that the government issue stronger regulations to enforce Section 504. As many as 200 people with all kinds of disabilities, of all ages and all races, occupied the federal offices for 28 days. Organizations outside the building helped capture media attention for the ongoing strike. Both disability organizations and non-disability advocacy organizations delivered food, mattresses, a shower hose, and other necessities to the strikers in the building. See video footage from the sit-in in our video collection linked below.

In response to these and other actions, the government finally responded with stronger regulations to enforce Section 504. Although Section 504 only affects programs receiving U.S. federal financial assistance, many of the regulations from Section 504 were incorporated into the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it passed in 1990.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA was introduced for consideration by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 1989. A cross-disability coalition of organizations representing people with all kinds of disabilities worked together in advocating for the U.S. to pass the ADA. Many people with disabilities met and spoke with U.S. Senators and Representatives and their staff to share their personal experiences with discrimination and exclusion. People with disabilities who could not come meet with Senators or Representatives or their staff wrote letters or made phone calls asking them to support the ADA.

For some policy makers, hearing stories about discrimination against people with disabilities helped them see the need for a law to protect their civil rights. However, some American businesses also started reaching out to Senators and Representatives, asking them to oppose the ADA. In part because of this, committees in the U.S. House of Representative held back the ADA bill so they would not have to decide how to vote on it.

People with disabilities and other supporters held a large march and rally at Capitol Hill, where U.S. Senators and the House of Representatives have their offices in Washington D.C. At the rally, a small group of wheelchair users crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to help bring media attention to the issue of accessibility, disability rights, and the need for passage of the ADA. The U.S. legislature passed the ADA in May 1990, and President George Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990.

Lobbying for CRPD Ratification

U.S. President Barack Obama ordered U.S. signature to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2009. The U.S. government then carefully reviewed the CRPD and compared it against all U.S. federal and state laws, and issued a proposal for ratification for the Senate to consider in May 2012. People with disabilities from across the United States wrote letters to Senators, called their offices, and met with them to ask them to support the CRPD. The U.S. Senate voted on the CRPD on December 4, 2012, but not enough Senators supported it to pass. The treaty was five votes short of the needed super-majority 66 votes needed. The U.S. Senate has not yet reconsidered the CRPD in a fresh vote.

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