By Margit Stange
“Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights,” a multi-media exhibit, is as bold and engaging as the historical movement it documents.
On April 5, 1977, disability rights protesters marching on San Francisco’s federal building spontaneously transformed a sit-in into a 26-day occupation, achieving the longest sit-in of a federal office building to date. Four years earlier, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 made it illegal for federally funded facilities or programs to discriminate against disabled people. But Joseph Califano, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), withheld his signature, blocking implementation of Section 504. By 1977, angered and impatient, a coalition of activists launched protests across the country.
San Francisco’s occupation of the HEW Building at 50 United Nations Plaza became the focal point of the protest. Enduring hardships, deprivations and medical risks, the occupiers dug in, finally emerging to join an April 30, 1977, victory rally after Secretary Califano signed the 504 regulations unchanged.
Becoming known as the “504 Occupation,” the protest achieved important advances in the implementation of accommodations for people with disabilities. “Patient No More” is a project of San Francisco State University’s Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability.
Through extensive outreach among local disability-rights activists and other communities, the exhibit curators — Fran Osborne, Emily Beitiks and Catherine Kudlick — worked with students from San Francisco State University to gather oral histories and videotape interviews with many surviving 504 occupiers. They also collected photographs, posters, flyers, buttons, correspondence, and other artifacts which are imaginatively and variously displayed and explained throughout the Ramp Lobby and Atrium on the ground floor of the Ed Roberts Campus in South Berkeley.
The exhibit space is well-chosen. Spacious, naturally lit and accessible, the Ed Roberts Campus building, which sits over Berkeley’s Ashby BART station, is an innovative example of “universal design” — a concept that grew out of struggles against cultural and physical barriers to inclusion of people with disabilities.
The late Ed Roberts was a founder of Berkeley’s Independent Living Movement. Moving from Berkeley’s campus to a larger arena, he helped found Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living in 1972. By 1976, Berkeley’s disabled population grew to an estimated 5,000 and Berkeley became known as a “Mecca for disabled people” (New York Times, April 17, 1977). A high percentage of the Bay Area’s 504 protestors came from Berkeley’s active disability community.
The ground-floor exhibit space has several entrances; accordingly, the curators designed a non-linear exhibit, though the visitor will easily find the historical overview video on a column in the Ramp Lobby. Interactive features include a 70s-era pay phone through which the visitor can listen to speeches and songs of protest, and stations for creating and recording one’s own placards and slogans. A 1977 office space — desk, typewriter, telephone and chair — typifies the unaccommodating physical environment in which the disabled occupiers of HEW’s 4th floor offices labored to sustain the protest, reminding the visitor of the environmental barriers found in nearly all offices before passage of Section 504 and, in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Working together to apportion tasks and cover necessities, the occupiers soon drew support from some of the Bay Area’s many activist groups. The Black Panther Party and Delancey Street provided meals; Salvation Army donated bedding; Glide Memorial and other groups and neighbors helped with communication, supplies, and even medical aid. Equipped with nothing more than pay phones, the occupiers brought media attention and political pressure to aid the cause of Civil Rights for People with Disabilities, attracting Congressmen Philip Burton and George Miller to join them in the occupied space for a “hearing” on the issue (images of this event are displayed over the caption “Political Theater”). The exhibit richly documents many public events and private moments in the unfolding saga of this extraordinary and historically transformative political action.
The most striking feature is “The Mural” (pictured, top). This photomontage covers the wall above the ramp, a cantilevered, red-paneled helix swirling upward under the domed skylight to provide second-story access. On the curving wall above the ramp, a collage of scenes from the occupation and rallies combines images of crowds, defiant speakers, incidental interactions, and intimate close-ups of protesters in attitudes of comradeship, joy, and stolid determination. The Longmore Institute commissioned poems responding to the mural to be played via on an audio description track.
Access features are built-in throughout. They include exhibit text and guides in Braille and audio tours, and captioning. Every video includes all of these features and some also include ASL. Every visitor’s appreciation of the materials is expanded by these multiple modes of access.
A BART commuter will gain much from stopping in at the exhibit (admission is free). The Patientnomore.org website is an exhaustive, valuable resource for studying the historical events, enjoying the exhibit contents, and planning a successful visit. Exhibit hours are restricted to regular business hours, with a few closures due to events at the Ed Roberts Campus. Be sure to check the calendar.
What: “Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights”
Where: Ed Roberts Campus, 3075 Adeline St., and online
When: Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through mid-January, with some closures: see calendar.
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