After 504: Training the Citizen-Enforcers of Disability Rights

Document Type


Publication Date



This article chronicles and analyzes an underexplored episode in the history of civil rights law and the disability rights movement: a series of government-funded citizen trainings that followed the enactment and administrative interpretation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The first major U.S. civil rights law to address disability-based discrimination, Section 504 is now relatively well known, as are the dramatic protests that helped convince the federal government to finally release implementing regulations. But much less is known about how Section 504’s imagined beneficiaries learned about the content of this new law, or how they gave it meaning in their own lives and communities in the law’s crucial early years. The history of the “Section 504 trainings” provides rich and important insights. Drawing on archival research, recorded oral histories, and original interviews, this article reconstructs those trainings. The article demonstrates that over the course of three years (1979-82), disability rights groups such as the Berkeley-based Center for Independent Living taught thousands of disabled trainees from around the country to think about Section 504 in a capacious, affirmative way and, further, to think of themselves as rights-bearings citizens, entitled to access and participation. The trainings, which were often disability-led, also taught trainees realistic techniques for identifying and addressing rights violations at the local level, laying the groundwork for the “private enforcement” on which Section 504 and related laws depend. This article also analyzes the legacies of the Section 504 trainings. First, there was a legacy of political and legal engagement, at both the local and national levels. The individual and collective power of trainees helped initiate change and and prevent backsliding, while also infusing the disability rights movement with energy. Second, the trainings affected how at least some participants thought about themselves — as individuals, as members of communities, and in relation to government. This effect is hard to show, and was not part of every trainee’s experience, but appears too frequently in the sources to discount. The article concludes on a less sanguine note: although there is much to celebrate in this history, these trainings are implicated in a larger architecture of disability rights enforcement that too often claims the labor of disabled individuals only to perpetuate their exclusion and subordination.


Civil rights, Section 504, Disability rights, Law, Activism, History

Publication Title

Disability Studies Quarterly