That year — inexplicably, it seemed — Lomax began falling as he walked. Then he learned that he had multiple sclerosis. As the disease progressed, he began using a wheelchair — and it opened his eyes to another form of discrimination. Wheelchairs that were supposed to provide independence, he found, were of little use in gaining entrance to public buildings without ramps. He saw that people with disabilities were regularly denied an education, and that there were few services to help them find housing or jobs, especially if they were Black.
After moving to Oakland, he learned about the Center for Independent Living, an organization started by people with disabilities that was instrumental in getting curb cuts for wheelchairs at street corners in San Francisco and nearby Berkeley. In 1975, he approached the director, Ed Roberts, and proposed that the center combine efforts with the Black Panthers to offer assistance to disabled people in East Oakland’s mostly Black community.
The relationships he built across the two communities would prove vital during the 504 Sit-in two years later.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare had been charged with writing the regulations for implementing Section 504, which was to be a model for other federal agencies. But the regulations were never enacted under President Gerald R. Ford because of resistance from business and government interests, which were wary of the costs of providing accessibility to education, employment, health care and public buildings.
In his campaign for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter promised to move the regulations forward, but after he took office, his new H.E.W. secretary, Joseph A. Califano Jr., said the rules would have to be overhauled before he would sign them.
To the activists, it seemed as if Califano was stalling in an attempt to water down the regulations.
After years of calling for Section 504 to be enacted, disabilities rights activists set April 5, 1977, as a deadline for action.