History Has Already Prepared Us For Resistance, If Only We'd Listen

On June 22, Republicans revealed their “secret” health care plan, called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017. Immediately, people with disabilities protested the draconian cuts to Medicaid that could strip away federal support for health care helping people to live independent lives.

ADAPT, a national grassroots organization for disability rights activists, mobilized people to arrive in Washington, D.C. Organizer Bruce Darling said the Senate health care act would “greatly reduce access to medical care and home and community-based service for elderly and disabled Americans who will either die or be forced into institutions. Our lives and liberty shouldn’t be stolen to give a tax break to the wealthy. That’s truly un-American.”

Images of 43 people with disabilities hauled away from the sit-in at Senator McConnell’s office, many resisting by abandoning their wheelchairs, reminded me of the long history of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some of my Gray Panther friends took part in that history.

In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, the first federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act stipulated “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Section 504 prohibited programs from receiving federal funds if they discriminated against a person with a disability. The Ford administration’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) at the time estimated that compliance with Section 504 could cost billions of dollars. It stalled the issuance of the final regulations until activists in 1977 demanded Section 504 be accepted. That year, Gray Panthers and other activists joined people with disabilities to occupy the San Francisco federal building, a sit-in that lasted 28 days. Following that, activists went to Washington, D.C. to confront the Health, Education and Welfare Department of the Carter administration to enforce the regulations. Section 504 set a precedent for more legislation including the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the 2009 American with Disabilities Amendments Act, and the 2012 Disability Amendment Act.

Patricia Wright said the protest in San Francisco was what caused disability rights “to become framed as a major civil rights issues in this country. And I think history will point to that as the major turning point."

In 2004, on the day of my retirement, I headed straight across Market Street into the San Francisco Gray Panther office and joined on the spot. My timing was ripe because the fight against the Bush administration's attempt to privatize Social Security had just begun. They became my mentors—people who translate hope into activism, people who continue fighting and protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Gray Panthers continue resistance to President Trump's policies against the poor and working families.

I learned the history of people’s struggles from those who made our history and protect our future. When we recall the many victories for human rights over the decades, appreciating those who made those commitments, we realize we cannot allow any setbacks. 

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