Disability rights groups last month fought back against the April 18th lifting of the federal mask mandate on buses, planes, and trains. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “A Disability Discourse,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman talked through past moments of reckoning over the rights for those living with physical disabilities. Heather and Joanne zeroed in on the 1977 San Francisco sit-in to secure the implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a long-gestating anti-discrimation provision. Long before the actions surrounding Section 504, however, the initial debate between President Nixon and Congress over the Rehabilitation Act became a reckoning over the appropriate role of the federal government in securing disability protections. 

Indiana Democratic Congressman John Brademas, a longtime advocate for disability rights, began pushing in late 1971 for an enlargement of the Smith-Fess Act, a groundbreaking 1920 law that provided the first federally-backed vocational training grants for Americans living with disabilities. 

In February 1972, Brademas unveiled a $3.5 billion, three-year expansion package called the Rehabilitation Act and held hearings in his Select Subcommittee on Education. Brademas argued for giving unprecedented federal grants to those who couldn’t work due to disabilities and included special grants for under-funded rehab centers (particularly those treating spinal injuries). 

The Act also included a broad and potentially revolutionary anti-discrimination statute for disabled workers, which would become Section 504 in the final law and would, albeit somewhat stealthily, effectively extend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to disabled Americans: “[N]o otherwise qualified handicapped individual… shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be…subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

The Act passed both houses of Congress convincingly, but came at an inopportune time for the Nixon administration. President Nixon had promised a $250 billion budget for the entire 1972 fiscal year, and was in danger of going beyond his cap. Nixon pocket-vetoed the Rehabilitation Act along with eight other bills on October 27th, 1972. The ignored bills also included a $30.5 billion appropriations bundle for the Department of Health, Welfare, and Education (HEW), flood control support, and funds for the improvement of veteran burial practices. 

Nixon’s move came just a week before the 1972 presidential election, during which many pundits had hammered Nixon for allowing runaway spending, particularly during a worsening inflation crisis, and argued that either he or his challenger, the liberal South Dakota Senator George McGovern, would be forced to raise taxes to cover the budget. McGovern, speaking during a telethon just after the conclusion of the legislative session, argued for the necessity of the programs and called for a special Senate session to override Nixon’s decisions. 

Disability rights activist Judy Heumann responded by orchestrating two November 2nd, 1972 traffic blockades in New York City. Heumann, an elementary school teacher and the founder of advocacy group Disabled in Action, had risen to national prominence in 1970 after successfully suing New York for denying her teaching license because of her use of a wheelchair. The second blockade, in front of the Midtown Manhattan Roosevelt Hotel where the Committee to Re-Elect Nixon had its offices, closed traffic at Madison Avenue and 45th Street for almost an hour. 

Heumann highlighted the Rehabilitation Act’s funding of dialysis machines. “The veto condemns to death hundreds of people with kidney disease,” she argued. 

Upon winning reelection in a landslide, Nixon urged further moves away from government assistance during his second inaugural address on January 20th, 1973. “Let us remember that America was built not by government, but by people–not by welfare, but by work–not by shirking responsibility, but by seeking responsibility,” Nixon proclaimed. He then offered a self-reliance-tinged reworking of President Kennedy’s iconic statement during his inaugural: “In our own lives, let each of us ask not just ‘What will government do for me?’ but ‘What can I do for myself?’”

Nixon followed up the next day with a cost-cutting budget, which sliced government support for some 113 federal programs, including property-tax relief, the Johnson-era Model Cities program, farm subsidies, and space-shuttle development. Nixon cited the goal of reducing inflation to 2.5% by the end of the year. 

Congress, still controlled by Democrats, continued to pass the kinds of social programs Nixon had condemned. On March 8th, 1973, the House voted by a lopsided, 318-57 tally to pass a $2.6 billion compromise Rehabilitation Act. Some Republicans even publicly broke with Nixon to praise the bill; Peter Peyser, a Westchester County, New York liberal Republican, said, “This is truly a bill of rights for the handicapped.” 

The passage of the Rehabilitation Act marked the 11th major bill during the early months of 1973 that Congress had approved over Nixon’s opposition.

John Ehrlichman, the Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, hosted a press conference in response to the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, where he referred to the overall slew of bills as “the $9-billion herd of Trojan horses that are thundering our way from out of Congress, brightly painted and outfitted with attractive accessories.” 

Ehrlichman also warned that Congress’ spending might necessitate Nixon to withhold up to $12 billion in funds, a constitutionally-controversial strategy known as “impoundment.” 

On March 27th, Nixon refused to sign the Rehabilitation Act and offered his first veto message of his second term. Nixon cited that he had already raised the overall federal budget for rehabilitation some 75% since taking office, and raised the specter of a 15% income tax increase if liberals got their way on the Act and similar social legislation.

Nixon lashed out at his congressional critics directly: “They neglect to warn the public that the cumulative effect of a Congressional spending spree would be a massive assault upon the pocketbooks of millions of men and women in this country. They also fail to warn us that simply throwing money at problems does not solve anything; it only creates poor legislation which frequently misses the target.”

Roy Ash, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that if the bill were allowed to become law “we are saying to the American people–we are saying to the world–that we won’t stop Federal spending at a level that can be balanced.” 

On April 3rd, the Senate voted 60-36 to override the veto, falling three votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority to push the legislation through. 10 liberal Republicans broke rank with Nixon, but five Southern Democrats–increasingly disenchanted by their party’s activist identity–came to his side. 

Republican Minnesota Senator Hugh Scott, the Senate Minority Leader and chief wrangler of GOP votes to sustain the veto, talked after the vote on the phone to John Ehrlichman, who was at Nixon’s estate in San Clemente for the President’s meeting with South Vietnamese President Thieu. “He told me that the President would do nip-ups when he hears this,” Scott told the press of his conversation. 

Scott positioned Nixon’s victory as a balm amid the worsening scandals beginning to mushroom around the July 1972 burglary at the Watergate Hotel. Just ten days earlier, news of burglar and ex-CIA agent James McCord’s letter to District Court Judge John Sirica admitting government involvement in the break-in had sent shockwaves through the GOP. Scott argued that the veto fight “should go a long way toward restoring morale.” 

Nixon later chimed in directly, calling the failed override “a resounding victory for the American taxpayer” and adding, “The tide of the budget is running in the people’s favor.”  

Congressional Democrats were dismayed. Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic presidential challenger in 1968, spoke with emotion on the Senate floor. Humphrey’s granddaughter Victoria, then aged 12, had Down Syndrome. Humphrey called Nixon’s decision “the most cruel, the most inhumane veto the President ever handed down.” He reflected on the privilege that allowed for Victoria’s security: “Our family can afford to take care of that child, but many families can’t.”

“I don’t believe the President of the United States knew what he was doing, if he did, he ought to be ashamed of himself,” Humphrey summated. Humphrey later unloaded to the press: “It’s just a goddamn outrage.” 

California Democrat Alan Cranston, another booster of the proposal, blamed pro-business lobbyists: “Someone downtown has fed the president some unmitigated balderdash.” 

The Senate Majority Leader, Montana Democrat Mike Mansfield, alluded to Nixon’s war budget in Southeast Asia. The Rehabilitation Act money, Mansfield argued, “was for a much better purpose than the money asked for bombs to be dropped on Cambodia.” Mansfield acknowledged, however, that he was losing the budget battle with Nixon: “The president is in the driver’s seat–at least for the time being.” 

Anti-discrimation activist and Jewish community leader Robert E. Segal wrote a syndicated column across Jewish publications echoing Mansfield’s point. Of the administration’s budget hawks, Segal wrote, “Strange how silent they are when the question of increased military spending in the absence of war is raised, how sympathetically they nod their heads in agreement when Defense Secretary [Elliot] Richardson insists that the arena of nuclear missiles and big bombers has executive privilege protecting it from any economy axe.” 

Miami Herald-Tribune cartoonist Don Wright captured the Democrats’ rage in a sketch showing a rotund, uniformed man labeled “Senate” presenting a man in a wheelchair with the upheld veto. “It’s time you pulled yourself up by the bootstraps!” the caption read. 

Further direct action by the disabled community immediately followed the news from the Senate. In Carbondale, Illinois, six students in wheelchairs blocked traffic amid a larger hunger strike. 

The following month, on May 3rd, 1973, Heumann orchestrated further protests at the annual meeting of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. At the conference, a portion of the delegation symbolically left the room during a speech by Nixon’s daughter, Julie, while 200 disability advocates held a candlelight vigil that night at the Lincoln Memorial. 

Brademas, who had argued that the veto “slammed the door in the face of disabled Americans,” set to work with his congressional allies on an even more diluted bill. In September, the Senate voted unanimously, 87-0, to pass a revised $1.54 billion proposal. Even Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and a close Nixon ally, supported the revised legislation. 

Nixon finally signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 on September 26th, 1973. “It is a good day for all Amerians who have wanted the Congress and the administration to stop butting heads and start pulling together for the public good,” Nixon said in his signing message.  

As Heather and Joanne explored on Now & Then, rancor over the implementation of the Rehabilitation Act would spur a further standoff between the federal government and disabled community in the following years. Nixon’s stonewalling of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was a harbinger, then, of a neglect for disability rights issues that–with the current anguish over the danger of relaxing COVID restrictions–are still far from resolved. 

For much more on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the disability rights movement, read Judith Heumann’s 2020 memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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