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'Drunk History' Highlights Fight for Section 504 and Disability Rights

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Tuesday night’s episode of “Drunk History” on Comedy Central included a segment on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As part of the show, each week a new narrator recounts a part of history to Derek Waters, one of the show’s creators, while getting drunk. A cast of actors and comedians play out the drunk narrator’s version of history.

The episode, which was focussed on civil rights, featured a retelling of Section 504 sit-ins. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in places or programs that receive financial assistance from the government. Before the enforcement of Section 504, “Disability [was] basically dismissibility,” Suzi Barrett, the narrator for the episode, said.

Section 504 was the first disability civil rights law in the United States. Passed in 1973, regulations enforcing Section 504 were not made until 1977 after the sit-ins. The largest sit-in was in San Francisco at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and lasted almost four weeks. Other sit-ins took place around the country, but only lasted a few days.

Section 504 paved the way for the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The American Coalition of Citizens With Disabilities (ACCD) led much of the fight for the implementation of Section 504 through country-wide sit-ins and protests.

Most Hollywood portrayals of people with disabilities are portrayed by able-bodied actors. Twenty percent of Americans have a disability, but less than 2 percent of characters on television have a disability, and 95 percent of those roles are played by able-bodied actors, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation.

“Drunk History,” however, cast actors with disabilities to play these trailblazers. Sean Berdy, a deaf actor, plays Frank Bowe, a deaf man who founded the ACCD. Ali Stroker, an actress who uses a wheelchair known for her role on “Glee,” played Judy Heumann. Another “Glee” alum, Lauren Potter, an actress with Down syndrome, also made an appearance. Other notable cameos include actor and comedian Zach Anner and Ajani “AJ” Murray, both of whom have cerebral palsy.

The “Drunk History” episode was met with praise on Twitter from people in the disability community including Judy Heumann, one of the organizers of the sit-in. Actors in the episode also tweeted about the show.

The fight to protect the rights of people with disabilities is far from over. Today, a new bill, HR 620, which passed the House and is currently in the Senate, threatens the ADA. HR 620 would make it harder for people with disabilities to take immediate civil action against businesses with “architectural barriers.”

Like the Section 504 sit-ins, people with disabilities are leading the charge. During a House committee hearing for the bill, members of ADAPT, a national organization of disability activists, chanted, “Don’t take our rights away, hands off the ADA” before they were removed and arrested by police.

ADAPT, founded in 1983, is well-known for its political action and protests. It has fought for the ADA since its inception, organizing the “Capitol Crawl,” where members of ADAPT left their wheelchairs and other mobility devices and crawled up the steps of the Capitol to force the stalled ADA bill out of committee.

ADAPT has also protest bills that would cut Medicaid like the American Health Care Act bill, which would have forced people with disabilities into nursing homes because of a lack of funding for home- and community-based services.

For those who missed Tuesday’s episode of “Drunk History,” you can watch the disability-related section below or check out the entire episode on Comedy Central.

Photo via Comedy Central

Originally published: February 21, 2018
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