Are Today’s Politicians Prepared for Another Capitol Climb?

Adapt action on steps of Supreme Court
Adapt action Capitol crawl. Photo by Tom Olin

For the last two hundred years, America has led the world in championing the rights of her disabled citizens. From civil rights to inclusion, activists have consistently demanded more equity and more equality. At every single turn legislators have, eventually, succumb to masterfully orchestrated pressure. What is yet to be answered, is whether or not the candidates of 2018 and 2020 have learned from the lessons of history.

It was 1972. America was made up of people who were going to vote for George McGovern and people who were going to vote for Richard Nixon. Presumably, Mcgovernites coveted the earthy avocado appliances while Nixonians were attracted to the upper-crustiness of harvest gold.

Long before the election of 1972, Americans had agreed to support the vocational rehabilitation of wounded warriors ( and disabled adults. There were laws on the books requiring the federal government to purchase items made by blind adults and laws prohibiting federal agencies from discriminating against disabled adults in the hiring process. But it wasn’t until the Javitts-Wagner-O’Day Act of 1971 ttps://,_regulations_and_policy/jwod.html), which prohibited discrimination of disabled students, that Congress turned its attention to protecting the next generation.

The idea that America had a vested interest in making sure every American was as productive as possible has its roots in 1917 when Congress created the Federal Board of Vocational Education for Wounded Military. The Board, which was long ago absorbed by the Department of Veteran Affairs, was created to help rebuild the men whose lives had forever been changed on the battlefield.

Fifty five years later, a liberal from Indiana and a moderate from West Virginia, both elected in conservative districts, were mounting a fight to help develop the skills of disabled children.

John Brademas (D-IN) was elected to the House of Representatives fourteen years before he saw House Bill 8070 signed into law. “Mr. Education,” as he was known in the halls of Congress, pushed for America to double its investment in education. For twenty years, conservative voters sent him back to Washington where he championed civil rights, conservation, arts, humanities and massive new investments in children through Head Start, Teachers Corps and, of course, the Rehabilitation Act. ( s-at-89.html)

Bills don’t become laws in the House alone so the “gregarious” Congressman turned to the very senior Senator from West Virginia. Jennings Randolph was first elected to the House of Representatives during the wave election of 1932. He would spend the next forty years loyal to the New Deal by fighting for civil rights, medical care for elderly Americans and safety net programs for families in need. Senator Randolph, who fought to reduce the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen for twenty seven years, was nothing if not steadfast in his belief that the future belongs to the next generation. (

Upon signing the bill into law, the President of the United States of America wrote “Last spring, shortly after completing my series of State of the Union reports to the Congress, I was forced to exercise my first veto of 1973 on a vocational rehabilitation bill which was fiscally and programmatically unsound. It is perhaps symbolic that a good bill drawn to serve the same ends is the first major piece of social legislation which I have had the opportunity to sign after this September’s State of the Union appeal for a fresh start on our long legislative agenda.” The Rehabilitation Act was signed by President Richard M. Nixon on September 26, 1973. (

Over the next two years, Congress reiterated their belief that all children could grow up to have meaningful, productive work lives. President Gerald Ford signed legislation that both expanded the number of children who could be helped as well as the type of help which could be offered. Under the guidance of Secretary David Mathews, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare diligently developed the rules of the road to to guide states in implementing evolving federal policy. (

The Rehabilitation Act is a formula grant and, as such, states have significant flexibility in how to best use the funds but the federal government draws the boundaries. David Mathews was forty five when he was sworn in as Secretary and as a historian and former University of Alabama President, he must have known that this work had the power to change American society for all of time.

But when President Ford fell to an anemic economy, a raging war and a decision to pardon Richard Nixon, Secretary Mathews fell too.

The new President, Jimmy Carter, replaced the Alabama scholar with a Harvard lawyer plucked from deep inside the Department of Defense. In his swearing-in remarks, President Carter, gave a clear picture of the real Joseph Califano when he said “there are some members of the political family who know how to have a special deal just for themselves. Unfortunately, the Secretaries of State and Treasury and Defense and others had to combine their oaths of office and the news attention with other people, but Joe worked it out where he could have one of his own.”

For whatever reason, some four years after the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was signed into law, Secretary Califano scraped the policy work of his predecessor and called for a new task force to study the Act’s provisions. But the world had changed by 1977. The Vietnam War was over. New York was ablaze and Elvis was dead.

On April 5, 1977 – just seventy five days after Jimmy Carter took the oath of office – one hundred Americans descended on the Health, Education and Welfare building in San Francisco to demand their right to live free of discrimination as afforded them by the US Congress four years earlier. The law had just simply not been implemented by the agency charged with that very function and, therefore, it was as if it had never passed at all.

For over twenty days, people with obvious and hidden disabilities commandeered the public spaces of federal buildings in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle. But it was the people of San Francisco and Washington D.C. who left the biggest mark. It was a time of bra-burning and fist-pumping. America had moved from Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree to Dancing Queen and it wasn’t about to go back.

The “504” occupiers, as they would become known, had one mission. They wanted to force Secretary Califano to sign off on the Rehabilitation Act especially Chapter 504, which protected their civil rights in schools, colleges and public places. Protestors followed both the Secretary and the President around Washington D.C while, In San Francisco, the Black Panthers delivered home cooked meals to protestors.

On April 28, 1977 Secretary Joseph Califano signed off on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 thereby ending the longest sit-in in American history.

Between 1977 and 1990, Congress demanded more from the Rehabilitation Act. They passed legislation authorizing more services, requiring more expertise from the professionals providing the services and expanding the definition of disability so that more people could access those services. In fact, since the National Defense Act of 1916 which first protected the rights of wounded warriors to return to school, Congress has never passed legislation reducing the services to or protections for people with disabilities.

While Congress hasn’t limited services or protections, that doesn’t mean they have been quick to respond to the needs of people living with a disability. Like the 504 protestors before them, activists had to force Congress to take the next step in disability rights. It was March 12, 1990 when hundreds of disabled Americans began dragging themselves up as many of the three hundred and sixty five steps of the US Capitol building as their strength would allow.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which had been stuck in Congress for two years, found its way to the desk of President George HW Bush one hundred and thirty six days after Capitol Crawl photos hit the paper. Apparently, members of Congress did not want to return home to answer questions about why it took an eight year old girl with cerebral palsy belly crawling toward them to get the Act signed into law. b06721d4c132f1

At the request of Senator Ted Kennedy, the bill was proposed in 1988 by Tom Harkin, a junior Senator from Iowa with a deaf brother but it took citizen activist to demand its passage while, appropriately, Sinead O’connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U topped the charts.

After two Supreme Court decisions that were viewed by disability rights activists as setbacks, Senator Tom Harkin came back to the table to honor his brother yet again. This time he had allies in Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI). On the House side, the Minority Whip himself, Steny Hoyer (D-MD) took the lead.

Congress, it appeared, had learned not to tangle with the mighty activist machine within the disability rights community. This time, they called together a broad coalition of nonprofits, government leaders and business executives to hammer out a compromise that would allow disabled individuals to have all the protections due them while protecting private businesses for undue financial hardships associated with architectural changes, for example. The Amendments Act of 2008 passed unanimously. It took forty-eight days.

The disabled and the people who love them have pushed America to be better at every turn. They have fought public perception. They have fought lady justice. They have fought those who were elected to represent them. They have fought hard and they have fought smart. And soon, they may need to dust off that old playbook.

It was December of 2007. President Bush was in the Oval Office and Alicia Keys was belting out “I don’t worry ‘cause everything’s going to be alright” on the radio. But everything wasn’t going to be alright for some ten million homeowners, two and a half million small business owners or eight million pink slipped employees. The American people just watched fourteen billion dollars vanish almost overnight.

It was the Great Recession and it was nearly four years after the Workforce Investment Act was to be reauthorized by Congress and seven years before Congress actually reauthorized it.

The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) governed every bit of the nations employment and unemployment initiatives. When meat packing plants in Kansas left for Mexico, the workers left behind would find help in WIA services. Programs like Youthbuild, Job Corps and the Summer Jobs Program were all made possible by WIA dollars.

It was the highway on which unemployment dollars traveled to the unemployed. American workers were in a free fall and Congress had neglected to reauthorize the programs designed to soften the landing. Reauthorization is the way in which Congress continues or tweaks existing law. At its best, the process includes significant input from subject-matter experts including trade associations, state government, think-tanks, researchers as well as the people who will either benefit from or be harmed by any proposed changes. For WIA, which expired in 2004, that process took ten years and one great recession.

The Workforce Investment Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 2014 replaced WIA and, some four years later, many states have not adequately implemented the Congressionally mandated changes for increased services and protections for disabled students.

Via the Act, Congress ordered states to reserve fifteen percent of their vocational rehabilitation dollars for services specifically designed to assist disabled students with career and college readiness services. In other words, Congress very specifically declared that it is in the best interest of the American economy for all citizens to participate in meaningful work and, in a rare move, they identified the funds to be used for those services. True, Congress didn’t pony up new money but they did repurpose money in a show of seriousness.

To date, federal buildings have’t been descended upon. But with cash crunches in Hawaii, the relinquished $18.0 million in Florida and the unflattering federal monitoring reports in Maryland, Maine, Indiana, Florida and Ohio protests may not be far behind. Monitoring reports from Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Michigan, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Utah have yet to be made public. ( and and

To date, there have been no Capitol Crawls but with growing evidence that significant racial disparities exists in both the diagnosis of and treatment of students with disabilities, which actually led to a Dear Colleague letter that read “unfortunately though, our enforcement experience continues to confirm: (1) over-identification of students of color as having disabilities; (2) under-identification of students of color who do have disabilities; and (3) unlawful delays in evaluating students of color for disability and their need for special education services.” Can protests be far behind? ( and

It’s 2018. Kenny Chesney is singing Get Along while the US Department of Education announced its intention to revisit the rules governing work and college readiness services to disabled students. Public comment is scheduled to open in September. The willingness to re-examine impediments to preparing disabled students for a successful college and career life sends a hopeful message for disability rights organizations. (

Unfortunately, if history is any predictor, activists should start building their coalition now.

Heather Beaven ( and and

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