LITTLE ATTENTION MAY be directed toward the crowd of people who will watch April 5, 1997 as a plaque is placed in front of an old federal building which forms one side of the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, Calif. Some will remember that this was the site of an evolving recognition of the dignity of those of us with disabilities. But to me, that outward sign of a historic event will symbolize the starting point of a journey of faith and an evolving commitment to remind my Church that every precious child of God is a part of a greater whole.

It was at this place that God taught me the very practical lessons about interaction and mutual aid. For my strengths and weaknesses combined with others' weaknesses and strengths brougth a sense of accomplishment and power. In the intervening years tens of thousands of people with disabilities have altered their sense of self. Campaigns to join the mainstream of American life and bring together the diversity of abilities and insights into our communities have not always moved smoothly. But the expectation on the part of our citizens with disabilities of participating in meaningful ways has grown stronger with each passing year.

The events of 1977 still call for serious consideration. For they proved that the intertwining threads of the variations in our abilities and disabilities created a social fabric that bound us together in love and unity. As the years have passed, prayer and meditation have inspired new definitions and fresh views of the relationship between human vulnerability and God's plan for his people.

That building on U.N. Plaza, which used to house the regional offices of the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), never was a terribly impressive location. But 20 years ago, for 28 long days and nights, a determined band of 100 people with various disabilities conducted a sit-in to dramatize their worth, strength and dignity. What happened in its offices, and along the corridors on the fifth floor, was as important to the disability-rights movement as the Montgomery Bus boycott was for African Americans. It was said that this event was celebrated in the Guinness Book of Records, but any general public recognition of the strength of those who endured that challenge is less important than the manner in which it forever altered the way disabled people began to think of themselves, whether they had lived those days inside or outside the walls. That HEW building became a fortress from which we could finally tell our stories and be heard.

New definitions that emerged from those days suggested that disabilities are the normal-and-expected outcome of the risks and stresses associated with the living process itself; and that the architectural, attitudinal, political, economic and social stigmas were much more “handicapping” than any medical diagnosis could possibly be.

We no longer wanted to be treated as victims and second-class citizens. We sought recognition of our basic dignity.

Those lucky few of us who lived through those weeks will never be the same. If it hadn't happened when it did, the mission of replacing the ancient and frightening stereotypes about human vulnerability would have awaited another time and place. My personal commitment, which has strengthened over time, is to bring those new possibilities into our Catholic churches. The year 1977 marked the beginning of reflection on how, within a small and secular setting, each individual's weaknesses and strength could build strong social bonds. It was as if, during those weeks long ago, a voice was faintly whispering a phrase that I now have the responsibility to say aloud: “If we do not find room for all our brothers and sisters as we gather about the eucharistic table, we have not built the Body of Christ on earth.”

It was a very cold night in March 1977 when four of us met as a result of a notice from the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, an early national advocacy office in our nation's capitol. The Washington people were asking various disability self-advocacy groups to plan an April 5 rally of solidarity and protest. So two wheelchair users and two blind people began to organize a movement for social justice.

Why was this happening? President Jimmy Carter received support from the community of handicapped and disabled when he promised that, once elected, he would make sure that the previously-passed Rehabilitation Act of 1973 would finally be implemented through initiation of regulations that would guide compliance. It was section 504 of that law that we saw as guaranteeing the civil protections that had evaded us. This unen-forced federal law stipulated that discrimination against those of us with disabilities should be illegal for all organizations and agencies that received federal funds. The HEW lawyers had been expected to draft the regulations for the law Congress had passed. Then-Secretary of HEW Joseph Califano, Jr. was telling Carter the mandate was too vague; too confused. We had been patient. Now we needed to remind the government that our repeated requests for relief from discrimination had real merit.

The rallying cry: “What do we want?” “504!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” rose to the sky that day in April as hundreds of friends and colleagues listened to the speeches, then formed an enthusiastic crowd led by a blind guitar-playing colleague who called out new words to old civil rights songs, playing the melody on his harmonica. The songs of freedom and justice echoed off the wall and rolled out into the traffic on Market St. Blind, mentally retarded and deaf people pushed those in wheel-chairs in a circling mass of joyful unity-until the call went up: “Let's go on in.”

Reportedly, a memorandum had been circulated suggesting we be treated with courtesy, fed cookies and punch, and sent home. After a number of hours of discussions, a hundred of us decided that minds were still closed to our plight. We prepared for the first of 28 nights of sleeping on the floor and tending to each other's needs.

The logistics were complex. All of us were disabled and some of us needed rather complicated care. That first night, one of the women sleeping in the office where I bedded down had to be moved and repositioned every few hours. But we knew we needed to show that we were strong and stood together in this campaign for justice. There was a phrase: “We'll have to hang in here together or we'll continue to be hanging out alone.” It had a rather familiar ring.

Our individual contacts in congressional and city offices brought assistance at critical moments but we were never sure if we would be arrested or whether the food contributions offered by varied and sometimes unusual sources would continue. We doubted there were sufficient accessible paddy wagons or cells for all of us. Our congressional friends had reprimanded the guards when contributions from Safeway, McDonald's, the Clancy Street drug program and the Black Panthers were originally turned away. The threats to our health, the turning off of the telephones, the unplugging of motorized wheelchairs, the discomforts we all endured, all reminded us that we were under assault.

Food could have been a problem. It seems so right in retrospect that two priests came every day to help us by preparing and serving meals, as well as cleaning up afterward. They rigged-up a cooler of cardboard boxes around the refrigeration units. They brought the Eucharist on Easter morning for those of us who craved to be sustained by the Body of Christ. They moved among us silently and discreetly, because some of us were on a hunger strike and tended to avoid even the smell of food. I never learned their names, but their obvious love for us as fellow children of God still inspires me.

We wanted to give the federal employees a sign that our protest was not directed against them, only the structure which failed to end discrimination against us. The two priests helped us get bunches of daffodils that we handed to the workers as tokens of our common humanity. We hoped that they would understand we were only seeking, as peacefully and with as much dignity as we could exhibit under such trying conditions, to prove to the world that we were strong. We no longer wanted to be treated as victims and second-class citizens. We sought recognition of our basic dignity.

For the culture of death can prevail only when we accept the negative views that some lives are not worthy to be lived

To tell the wonderful stories of our interactions would take pages; and a recounting of our dark moments of fear would have to be interlaced into that account. But the following example reveals one of the lessons learned. I had never been an attendant before but now I slept every night on a pallet, surrounded by stacked desks and four other people, one a black man who was quadriplegic. At the time I did not use a wheelchair; I was only blind. So it made sense that I should assist him. I learned to attend to all the details of getting him ready for a day in his wheelchair-reversing the process each night. At first it seemed odd to touch this stranger in such personal and intimate ways. Then suddenly it became both essential and natural. It reminded me of Jesus washing his friends' feet. It became a privilege to be so trusted, to assist this brother in Christ. There was a faint awakening of awareness of God's presence in each of us, as we were all making incredible sacrifices to confirm our desire to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect. Never again would I look at interdependency as a negative fact of life.

Our colleagues had to abandon their efforts to talk with officials in Washington when they were prevented from bringing in food during their long wait to be heard. And so some of us decided to call a hunger strike to confirm to ourselves and others our commitment to stay at any cost. We who chose that form of commitment were amazed at how much time the others had to spend with food: its preparation, preservation and clean-up. We were free to spend those hours in discussion, strategizing, writing, focusing on the events of the day, clustered together in a relatively-quiet stairwell that become our special place as we sipped our fruit juices.

One evening we decided to play “Wish,” each of us telling what we'd like the most. Some wanted a favorite food; others chose success in seeing our 504 regulations signed. The last to share was a young woman who used crutches: “If I'd been asked before to make a wish, it would have been not to be a cripple anymore. I wanted to be beautiful. But now I know I'm beautiful just the way I am.” She glimpsed a truth that I would later write about. For it took me another decade before I truly realized that each of us, no matter our impairments or limitations, is a tiny reflection of our Lord and Creator. He has a plan for each of us and none of us are to be thrown away.

In 1992, as I sat in my wheelchair upon a platform in Vatican City to address thousands of people who had gathered there at the invitation of Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, I spoke of the insights that had been offered to me during that 504 sit-in:

√That disabilities result because God places the gift of life in fragile earthen vessels. Our bodies are not meant to last forever.

√That this mutual vulnerability and fragility are a simple fact of living and we need to learn to create environments and programs that are universally-designed so that none need be excluded.

√That we can glimpse the power of the human spirit in every rehabilitation. For such efforts to prevail in spite of the fragility of the human body is a small reflection of the Resurrection and can confirm our desire to unite with Christ.

√That we will create a culture of love when we eliminate the fear of vulnerability. For the culture of death can prevail only when we accept the negative views that some lives are not worthy to be lived or some of us will be too much of a burden to be tolerated.

√And it may be that our interdependency is the only hope in preventing us from growing ever more alienated and separated.

The lessons of the 504 sit-in continue to play out in many ways. At this 20th anniversary I welcome all to join in prayers of thanksgiving. That plaque in U.N. Plaza will mark a historic secular event. It can also remind us of God's presence in the most unlikely of places.

As others gather to remember the events of 20 years ago, I will join in prayer, thanking God that so many miracles of unity and insight, interaction and catalytic influences took place in my lifetime.

Mary Jane Owen is executive director of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities. For more information contact NCPD at: P.O. Box 29113, Washington, DC 20017; (202) 529–2933.