On April 5, 1977, disabled activists around the country staged protests at regional offices of the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). At the San Francisco office, however, the activists refused to leave as the day waned and instead pushed through security, stormed the building, and occupied it for the next twenty-nine days. The occupation ended only when HEW Secretary Joseph Califano finally signed the regulations that implemented Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, making it illegal for any program receiving federal funds to discriminate against disabled people.
For most of the twentieth century, adults and children with disabilities experienced rampant institutionalized discrimination. Disabled people could be refused employment, housing, and even education. Things did not significantly begin to change until the 1970s, when a grassroots movement organized and powered by disabled people began to win crucial legislative victories, like the foundational 1973 Rehabilitation Act.
This key piece of legislation provided grants for technical assistance dispensed via state vocational rehabilitation services. It also set the stage for future legislation that focused on extending full participation and civil rights to people with disabilities in all sectors of American life. The law helped embolden and inspire an entire generation of young people who were ready to demand more of their country. As the disabled activist Bob Williams remembers it,
“For those of us who came of age around this time, its effects expanded and emboldened what we perceived to be the possibilities of our lives.”
Williams has written about what it felt like to see people, “just like me begin to attend college, learn to drive and start their careers…and I knew I could do the same.” Section 504, however, was the civil rights pearl buried in the law, and the federal government balked at implementing it for years until activists pushed it to the center stage of American politics during the spring of 1977.
More Americans than ever are perhaps familiar with this story, thanks to the incredible success of the recently released Netflix documentary Crip Camp. The film traces the way that Camp Jened, a summer camp for kids and adults with disabilities in upstate New York, helped stir the flames of one of the youngest social movements of the twentieth century. Among the film’s early “stars” is none other than the world-renowned disability rights activist, Judy Heumann, whose leadership abilities shine through even in her youth.
The stories of the triumphs and tribulations chronicled in Crip Camp are important and well worth watching, but they only scratch the surface of this movement’s multifaceted history. Even after Section 504 was signed into effect, the details of its implementation prompted many additional discussions throughout the federal, state, and local levels of government. Shortly after Califano signed off on the regulations, for example, the Senate Committee on Education and Labor held a series of hearings over three days in September 1977 to help clarify how to proceed with implementing the policies.
Among the individuals who appeared and provided statements over the course of the three-day hearings was Dr. Martha Ozer (then, Martha Redden), who served as director of the Project on the Handicapped in Science. But what was the Project on the Handicapped in Science and why was Martha called to participate in the hearings that day?
Digging more into the story behind the hearings that followed the 504 sit-ins reveals an entirely new watershed moment in the struggle for disability rights: the 1976 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Barrier-Free meeting.
Putting Disability on the AAAS Agenda
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, activists increasingly attacked the belief that science was a politically-neutral institution. Groups such as Science for the People emerged to expose the power dynamics at the heart of scientific institutions that unfairly excluded women and minorities, and that were allowed to proceed with little ethical or moral oversight. One of the primary targets of this activism was AAAS.
Formed in 1848, the AAAS has long been a prestigious and widely esteemed interdisciplinary science organization. Activists thus targeted the very foundation of American science when, in 1969, they began to protest the organization’s annual meetings. These direct-action efforts often consisted of targeted disruptions, protests, and parallel meetings in which activists called attention to a range of progressive issues in STEM. Reception of these messages by AAAS members was mixed, at best. As sociologist Kelly Moore recounts, the wife of a scientist on one disrupted panel at a meeting in 1970 jabbed one of the activists with her knitting needle.1
Although not always popular, activists’ efforts to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in science were ultimately successful, and the organization began to embrace change.
By 1973, the AAAS Board of Directors finally responded to these calls for change by establishing a Committee on Opportunities in Science and a fully staffed Office of Opportunities in Science. Together, these new bodies would advise the Board and work towards “greater representation of women and minority scientists,” in both the AAAS and in scientific fields more broadly. Reading about these efforts in the pages of Science, biochemist John J. Gavin wondered where people with disabilities fit into the AAAS’s increasingly expansive vision. Gavin became deaf when he was 34 years old, and despite having already proven himself as a scientist by that time, he was unable to find employment as a deaf person. In the hope that additional training might help his situation, he decided to go to Rutgers University where he earned a Ph.D.. His investment paid off: he went on to become the Director of Molecular Biology Research for Miles Laboratories.
After all his effort, however, Gavin was disappointed to find that the annual meetings of the AAAS, which lacked interpreters or communication assistance of any kind, were almost useless to him. He wrote a letter explaining his concerns to the AAAS Board, pointing out that, although still unsigned, Section 504 required accessibility in federally funded programs.2 In 1975, after years of strife and under the presidential leadership of Margaret Mead, the AAAS responded by officially expanding the scope of its Office of Opportunities in Science (OOS) to include issues surrounding disability and access.
Coming Out & Coming Together
Dr. Janet Brown, the head of the OOS, was aware of Gavin’s letter and the coming changes of Section 504 well before the official expansion. By the end of 1974 she and Gavin were already working to organize the first AAAS panel devoted to disability for the annual meeting in January 1975: “The Physically Disabled Scientist: Potential and Problems.” Brown also brought Martha Ozer into the fold.
An accomplished educator and school psychologist from Louisville, KY, Ozer had been working to help with issues surrounding integration of the city’s school system when she caught the attention of the Department of Education. She was selected with fewer than a dozen other educators from around the country to bring her skills into the growing field of special education. Ozer moved to D.C. and began working for the Bureau of the Education for the Handicapped where she monitored grants which, she recalls, “turned out to be very boring.” Fortunately, after six months, she was allowed to switch to a new project, and by chance she learned about the budding efforts around disability at the AAAS. She reached out to Janet Brown to see if she could help, and the two immediately hit it off. By January 1975, Ozer had moved into the AAAS headquarters and was able to attend the symposium on disabled scientists at the annual meeting. There, she met Gavin along with dozens of other scientists with disabilities and other devoted advocates, like Virginia Stern, who went on to become the heart of the burgeoning science and disability movement.
Although it consisted of only six presenters, the 1975 symposium itself was groundbreaking. The presenters included high-achieving scientists with disabilities: Dr. Nansie Sharpless, a Deaf biochemist and a professor at Einstein Medical College; Dr. E.C. Keller, Jr., a professor of biology at West Virginia University who was a polio survivor; and Dr. Jerome Schein, director of the Deafness Research and Training Center at NYU. Sign language interpreters were available, and, slowly, scientists and engineers with disabilities who had long felt isolated and marginalized began to recognize there were others out there just like them.
As Gavin later reflected upon the experience:
“The handicapped minority is the quiet minority; perhaps what it needs is a very loud spokesperson to change the attitude of ‘normal’ society.”3
Galvanized by the experience, Ozer spent the next 12 months working on grants and planning for a barrier-free meeting for the AAAS. Federal agencies, universities, hotels, and other scientific societies kept close watch, knowing that the 1976 barrier-free meeting would serve as a test case for the implementation of Section 504.
Science without Barriers
The concept of a barrier-free meeting grew out of what had become by that time a widely recognized approach to addressing issues of access and inclusion for people with disabilities. In its simplest form, the barrier-free movement was about reducing unnecessary obstacles in public spaces so that people with (mostly physical) disabilities could learn, work, and contribute to society. The barrier-free philosophy embraced the idea that people with physical disabilities, and to some extent deafness or blindness, could succeed in life without much fuss as long as specific barriers were removed and certain technologies implemented. Curb-cuts, ramps, elevators, improved wheelchairs, canes, and ASL and Oral interpretation are some of the technologies that became associated with the barrier-free movement.
For those in the STEM world, the barrier-free approach aligned well with Cartesian ideas about science that stressed the importance of mind over matter. If the thing that counted most in science was the mind, they reasoned, then why should physical or sensory disabilities matter at all?
These arguments resonated rather easily with the membership of AAAS, a community made up of individuals who, on the whole, prided and evaluated themselves and each other not on any particular physical or social prowess or strengths, but in their intellectual feats. As Gavin noted:
“Even though profoundly deaf I have reached a relatively high level of management, but I don’t see many others at any level. As a scientist, a so-called knowledge worker, I find this somewhat strange for physical capability, no matter how desirable it may be, is relatively unimportant in the business of science. The governing factor in the employment and utilization of scientific personnel should not be the appearance of the package, but the quality if its contents.”4
Putting on the Barrier-Free Meeting
In the months leading up to the 1976 meeting in Boston, Ozer worked to identify AAAS members with disabilities who wanted to attend. She reached out to them to find out what they would need to do in order to make that happen. She worked with several hotels in Boston where the meeting was taking place and connected them with architects in the area who could help them prepare accessible hotel rooms. Working closely with the AAAS meeting planners, Ozer gathered and provided them with information on how to make sure the local airport was ready to receive attendees who travelled with wheelchairs, service dogs, canes, and walkers. All of this, she recalls, she was able to learn by working closely with the local community of disability activists and advocates in Boston at the time, including Paul Corcoran and Fred Fay, both of whom had worked to found the Boston Center for Independent Living in 1974.
Through these efforts, Ozer made sure the meeting had interpreters at every session with Deaf attendees or presenters and that there were people on hand to help blind attendees navigate the conference.
The centerpiece of the barrier-free effort, however, was the resource room she organized and staffed along with Virginia Stern and her secretary, Wayne Fortunato-Schwandt. There, Ozer had set up self-care and rest stations with food, water, and round-the-clock wheelchair repair. AAAS members with disabilities gathered and chatted, building connections with one another and laying the foundation for future work. “We had everything we could think of that a disabled scientist would need to come and participate fully in the meeting,” says Ozer.5
Ozer and Stern were already thinking about the future. Beyond their efforts to improve access for those who were already AAAS members, they organized a luncheon where high school students with disabilities from the surrounding area could come and see what was possible. In addition to the regular attendees like John Gavin or the pioneering scientist and activist, Phyllis Stearner, the students were treated to a guest appearance by Stephen Hawking, who happened to be a guest lecturer at Harvard that year. Looking back, Ozer sees this luncheon as a turning point in the work the Project on the Handicapped in Science would do:
“The disabled scientists—we had 1000 of them that contacted us immediately once they heard what we were doing—the kids we couldn’t find because people didn’t think disabled kids could do science.”6
This was the beginning of what Stern would go on to develop more fully as the EntryPoint! program. EntryPoint!, which is still ongoing, is a AAAS internship program that places promising college students with disabilities in science internships, helping to keep them on the path towards a career in STEM and highlighting the presence of this underserved population in science education.
Implications for Disability Rights
After the successful February 1976 meeting, Ozer put together a publication on everything they had learned about creating accessible programs. In the preface, she wrote:
“We offer Barrier-Free Meetings as a step-by-step system for achieving accessibility at professional meetings. We feel that it provides a basic plan which can be modified and adapted to all the meetings of each association, so that even the smallest of meetings, such as a committee meeting, can be planned to be accessible to all.”7
Today Ozer looks back and remembers being caught off guard by the book’s popularity. “We wrote it for AAAS and its affiliates,” she recalls, “we didn’t know the whole world would use it.” The book was a huge success. It hit the press on the cusp of the full implementation of Section 504, offering excellent guidance on accessibility to federal agencies, universities, schools, and all organizations who received federal funding. The government alone bought so many copies that the AAAS Project on the Handicapped in Science became a fully funded program as a result of the book’s sales.
The impact of Ozer’s work for AAAS on the Disability Rights Movement, however, didn’t stop with the publication of Barrier-Free Meetings. In March 1977, Martha Ozer contacted all 500 disabled members of the AAAS to let them know that Joseph Califano was backing off the Carter administration’s promises about signing Section 504. After three years of waiting, disability rights advocates were nervous that the regulations might be indefinitely weakened if not signed by the newly-appointed Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Ozer’s call to action resulted in a flurry of letters from high profile scientists, who also happened to have disabilities, writing with eloquent anger and indignation at the news:
“I have learned with great distress that one of your most important initial acts…is to weaken Section 504 of the Regulations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Dr. Martha R. Redden has informed 500 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that it is your intention to injure the possibility of handicapped persons gaining a greater opportunity to participate in the sciences, both in training, education and employment…I am a totally blind psychologist who has held a number of positions, too numerous to mention in this letter…Let me simply say that I, as a blind individual, have experienced in my career enough problems gaining an education and earning a living to fill a book. I know that my experiences are not unique to me…Prospective employers have, on numerous occasions, said to me quite openly that they would not hire me because of my blindness, even though it was clear that the job could have easily been performed by me. I trust that you will reconsider your intentions and help make it possible for the handicapped to achieve the dignity and security which we have so zealously striven to obtain…. Sincerely, Professor George D. Jackson, PhD, Howard University.”8
One month later, Judy Heumann and her fellow activists stormed the HEW building and refused to leave until Califano backed down and signed Section 504 as it had been written. The public protest and sit-in put the kind of public pressure on the government that was necessary, but the efforts of scientists with disabilities and advocates like Ozer also helped turn the tide.
Five months after the historic sit-in, Martha Ozer came before the Senate Subcommittee on Select Education and spoke once again about her work to improve access for people with disabilities in the sciences. As the government finally reckoned with what it would mean to implement equitable access for people with disabilities, it turned to the work of Ozer and her colleagues at the AAAS to demonstrate what it took to create a more inclusive and accessible world for people with disabilities. Although Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was only the beginning of the struggle for equal rights under the law, these years forged the communities, networks, and leaders who would eventually help fight for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
Like any grassroots social movement, the struggle for disability rights has been rich and nuanced, but the complexity of the history behind the ADA is often simplified and distilled down to a few watershed moments culminating in the victory of this landmark legislation. The little-known story behind the AAAS barrier-free meeting provides a small glimpse into a widespread, decentralized, and diverse grassroots movement for disability rights in the years before the ADA. It also highlights the amount of sustained work and determination that is required to move from a legislative victory to the lived experiences of a more just, accessible, and equitable world.
-Jessica Martucci holds a PhD in the history & sociology of science and a master’s degree in bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania, where she now teaches courses in science, health, gender and disability. She studies issues of access, equity, and justice in the history and contemporary practice of science, technology, and medicine. Her first book, Back to the Breast: Natural Motherhood and Breastfeeding in America (University of Chicago, 2015), explores the history of the breastfeeding movement in 20th century medicine and culture. You can find Jessica on twitter as @bioethistorian
Header: The 1970s symbol used by Science for the People. Source: Science for the People Archives.
- Kelly Moore, Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1974 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009),166.
- Cheryl A. Davis and Martha Ross Redden, “Achievement in Biology: An Introduction to Handicapped Biologists,” The American Biology Teacher 40.3 (March 1978): 175-178; 190.
- John Gavin, “One in Eleven,” Performance 25.11 (May 1975): 5-7.
- John Gavin, “Preface,” in Barrier-Free Meetings: A Guide for Professional Associations by Martha Ross Redden, Wayne Fortunato-Schwandt, and Janet Walsh Brown (Washington, D.C.: AAAS, 1976).
- Jessica Martucci, oral interview with Martha Ozer, March 26, 2020.
- Jessica Martucci, oral interview with Martha Ozer, March 26, 2020.
- Martha Redden, “Introduction,” in Barrier-Free Meetings: A Guide for Professional Associations by Martha Ross Redden, Wayne Fortunato-Schwandt, and Janet Walsh Brown (Washington, D.C.: AAAS, 1976).
- Letter from George D. Jackson, Implementation of Section 504, Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Select Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, 95th Congress (September 9, 13, and 16, 1977): 469.