Judith Heumann leads the 504 Sit-in in San Francisco
On April 5, 1977, Judith Heumann led demonstrators into the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco, where they staged a sit-in demanding the signing of the regulations to operationalize Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This moment marked a turning point in the disability rights movement and was one of many significant actions led by Heumann in her lifelong work as a disability rights advocate.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Heumann contracted polio as a baby, which left her a quadriplegic. As a child, she was denied the right to enroll in public school with the rest of her neighborhood friends because officials deemed her a “fire hazard” due to her use of a wheelchair. She eventually attended Special Education classes in the basement of P.S. 219. During the summers, she found community at a camp for children with disabilities and was a leader among her fellow campers. Heumann earned her college degree at Long Island University, where she studied to become a teacher and engaged in activism through the student council.
In May 1970, the New York State Board of Education denied Heumann a teaching license on account of her disability. She sued and won the case, which was the first of its kind ever filed in federal court. Following this victory, Heumann formed the organization Disabled in Action and served as its first president. She worked on Capitol Hill and led the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California, lobbying the whole time for the signing of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which in Section 504 prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities in any program receiving federal aid. While there was great excitement at its signing, years passed with no sign of the government acting on its promises.
In 1977, leaders in the disabled community organized protests across the country; Heumann was one of the organizers in San Francisco. When she announced the sit-in and led demonstrators into the building, she went around to each person present urging them to stay the night. The federal government cut off the phones and water supply in the building in an attempt to dissuade the demonstrators. Each night, Heumann led strategy meetings, working tirelessly to ensure that everyone present was able to contribute. Heumann addressed the two Congressmen who held a hearing in San Francisco, saying “this is the beginning of a civil rights movement.” A few days later, she led a group of demonstrators to Washington, DC, where they protested in front of the White House. On April 28, 1977 the government implemented the regulations, and the San Francisco sit-in ended two days later. The regulations won by the demonstrators that month set the stage for the future Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Since the sit-in, Heumann has gone on to become an internationally renowned disability rights advocate. She served in the Education Department of the Clinton Administration, the State Department of the Obama Administration, and as an advisor on disability and development to the World Bank. In 2020, she was named one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Women of the Year,” was featured in the Netflix movie Crip Camp, and published her book Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.
This entry was created for This Week in History as part of a course on the history of American Jews and Social Justice taught by Karla Goldman at the University of Michigan, Winter 2021.
Sources: “Before the A.D.A., There Was Section 504.” The New York Times, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, “A Talk with Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann.” Hadassah Magazine., Heumann, Judith and Kristen Joiner. Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, “Woman in Wheelchair Sues to Become Teacher.” The New York Times, “1977: Judith Heumann. 100 Women of the Year.” TIME.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Judith Heumann leads the 504 Sit-in in San Francisco." (Viewed on March 20, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/judith-heumann-leads-504-sit-san-francisco>.