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History of the 504 Democratic Club

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The late 1970s and early 1980s were an interesting period for the burgeoning disability rights movement. The effects of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were just beginning to be experienced. Section 504 mandated that all programs which receive Federal funding must be accessible to persons with disabilities. Another decade would pass before Congress would approve the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It became increasingly apparent that, with more PWDs pursuing an education and holding out the possibility of employment, transportation would be a major obstacle. At the time, virtually the only form of accessible transportation was Medicaid funded ambulettes (or "Invalid Vehicles.") Trips had to be arranged in advance, and if not approved for Medicaid reimbursement, were extremely costly.

The community in New York City began to seek inexpensive public transport, where an individual could go virtually anywhere without advance planning. Increasingly, the community began to focus upon buses with wheelchair lifts. As a result of a lawsuit, the NYC Transportation Authority agreed to begin to purchase these type of buses. However, complete accessibility would take a number a years. Initially, many people in the community were reluctant to use this type of transportation, due to long waits, inoperable lifts, and drivers who claimed that they lacked keys for the lifts. Over the course of time, lift-equipped buses became an ordinary, accepted means of transportation by PWDs and the wider community.

Once the battle for lift-equipped buses had been won, it became increasingly apparent that bus transportation had its limitations. It was difficult to travel by bus between boroughs and to go from one part of the city to another. The Mobility Through Action (MTA) coalition which had formed on the bus issue, shifted its focus to subways. It developed a plan to seek accessibility for 100 "key stations." The response of the political establishment, including the Mayor of the City of New York, both United States Senators, the Governor, and the major media, was stunning. By falsely claiming that the community demanded 100% subway accessibility, we were attacked as "irresponsible" in demanding a costly remedy to our transportation problems. They were content to continue to allow PWDs to operate within the margins of society by remaining hidden in institutions and their own homes.

In 1982, Governor Carey decided not to run for re-election. This set up a primary battle between NYC Mayor Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo, who had previously lost a Mayoral primary to Koch. Cuomo promised the community that, if elected, he would support our drive for subway access at 100 "key stations."

Much of our community's leadership rallied in support of Cuomo, who decisively defeated Koch in the primary and narrowly won the General Election.

In one of his first acts as Governor, Cuomo oversaw the passage of legislation providing for 100 accessible "key" stations, as well as the development of a paratransit program as a feeder to buses and subways and for those in the community who would not ordinarily be able to use public transportation.

For the first time, our community had rallied around one political candidate, and the result of our effort was intoxicating, along with the realization that our community was a "sleeping giant" and could make the difference in electing our public officials. As a result, many of the veterans of the Cuomo campaign banded together to start the 504 Democratic Club, named in honor of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Over the years, the Club provided the leadership for starting many community activities, including the Disability Independence Day March (DIDM), which held on the anniversary of the passage of the ADA and the fight for "goals and timetables" for PWDs in city employment. More recently, 504 participated in the founding and provides much of the leadership of the Taxis for All Campaign, which is bringing wheelchair-accessible taxis and liveries to New York City, and the Disabilities Network of New York City along with the annual Disability Budget and Policy Agenda.

For many years before the advent of the internet, we in 504 thought we are acting alone. Only recently have we found out that similar groups have been operating in places such as California and Florida over much of our existence. Increasingly, we have become involved in the leadership and organization of Democrats with disabilities on the national level. We participated in an effort which produced extensive disability platforms for virtually all the Democratic candidates for President and were actively involved in the Kerry/Edwards campaign. We are also involved in efforts to form a national Democratic Disabilities Caucus.

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