Fighting Shame with History

The newly redesigned SFSU mascot, a ferocious-looking alligator growls. A speech bubble coming from his mouth reads, "Guilt! Shame! Anxiety!"

By: Katie Murphy

Getting ready to start a new semester is a bit different for me. Like everyone else, I have to buy my books and readjust to a less nocturnal schedule. But, as a disabled student, I have the added preparation of having to work through a lifetime of internalized ableism at the beginning of each semester. You see, at the start of each term, I have to meet with my professors and explain to them my accommodations. And no matter how awesome and with it my professors are, requesting accommodations makes me a wee bit anxious. Before I even walk into office hours, I have to go to battle with all the awful ideas about disability that I’ve been exposed to since birth.

I have to engage in a little mental boxing match with self-doubt: “Do I really even need those accommodations? I could get by without them, right? I did before.” And guilt: “I’m wasting my professor’s time. They’re going to hate me. I’m such an inconvenience.” And shame: “A good student and a stronger person wouldn’t need all this stuff. I guess I don’t deserve any praise I get from my family about going to grad school. I guess I’ll have to give my Uncle Jimmy back that sweet card he sent me when I graduated from Berkeley. Oh my god, where did I put that card? Where did I put that card?

And I’m guessing a lot of other disabled students go through the same thing. (Minus the card from my Uncle Jimmy part.)

But we don’t have to. We really, really don’t have to.

And I think most of us know this. Intellectually, I know that accommodations are my right and I’m not getting some unfair advantage over everyone else. My accomplishments are my own, and I don’t need to torture myself by going without accommodations.

And yet...

Pure logic isn’t always the best tool for fighting feelings like self-doubt, guilt, or shame. Disabled people grow up learning to hate themselves, to hate their disability, because the world we live in hates disability for no logical reason. And sometimes the best way to fight that kind of illogic is with more illogic.

If I can’t completely get rid of that part of me that demands I feel bad for being a disabled student, I can at least trick it. “Hey ‘Part of Me That Demands I Feel Bad for Being a Disabled Student’! I don’t owe you any feel bads. Somebody else already felt bad on my behalf. My bill is paid. My debt is settled. You can stop leaving harassing voicemails.”

You see, in 1977, years before I was born, 150 disabled people occupied the old federal building in San Francisco to force the government to enact the first civil rights legislation for disabled people in US history. As I’ve learned going over interviews with some of the occupiers for the Longmore Institute's Patient No More exhibit, one of the major motivations for occupying the building was the right for people with disabilities to get an education. Some of the sit-in participants went to segregated schools—separate schools for disabled children. Some were lucky enough to go to one of the few universities that admitted disabled students. They all sat-in so I could go to school and have the accommodations I need.

Just think: For twenty-six days, around 150 disabled people lived in a single floor of an office building. Only a handful were aware that they would be occupying the building at all, let alone for a month, so most participants didn’t have any bedding or a change of clothes with them. Many participants required attendant care for eating, using the bathroom, or preventing pressure sores. All of that care had to be improvised inside the building with everyone helping wherever and whoever they could. Some protesters had medicines that needed refrigeration, so a makeshift fridge was created with a window air conditioner and a plastic sheet. When the phone lines were cut, they communicated with the outside world by signing to people picketing in front of the building. Their struggle was supported by the Black Panthers, who made the protesters (including Black Panther Bradly Lomax and his attendant Chuck Jackson) two hot meals a day. When a bomb threat was called in, they didn’t leave the building. The protesters were in such close quarters with such limited opportunities for personal hygiene that many of them got crabs.


On top of all that, the building was completely inaccessible. The protestors were fighting for the implementation of the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which made it illegal for entities receiving federal funding to discriminate on the basis of disability. Under Section 504, the very building the protestors were occupying would have to be made accessible to disabled people. Yet they stayed in this inaccessible building for nearly a month to demonstrate the need for disability rights legislation, showing the nation the strength of the disability community and its allies.

If you, like me, ever find yourself feeling guilty or ashamed about being a disabled student, doubting whether you really need or deserve accommodations, I encourage you to think back to the 504 protests. If you ever feel society tugging at you to “get by” without accommodations, “toughen up,” “suck it up,” “stick it out,” because “the whole world doesn’t cater to you,” remember that you are part of a community that has spent enough time living in an inaccessible world. If you feel tempted to do an ableist society’s work by torturing yourself for being disabled, remember that over a hundred protestors (and an infestation of crabs) stayed in a building for nearly a month without the comforts of home or any accommodations or accessible structures. Remember that all the discomfort and indignities they faced as protestors were so that you wouldn’t have to go through the same thing. You’re relieved of any duty to feel guilty or ashamed about being a disabled student.

At the same time, you’re not completely off the hook. Remember that you have a legacy to uphold—a legacy that was forged in part at the 504 protests. Remember to honor the qualities that made the 504 sit-in so successful and such a life-changing experience for those involved: community pride, collaboration, and commitment to education.

Remember that the 504 sit-in did not occur so that one disabled person could scale the social ladder while the rest of the disability community remained on the bottom rung. The 504 sit-in was an effort by the disability community for the disability community. Remember that when you next come across fellow students who might be eligible for accommodations but are unfamiliar with the disability services offered by your school. Remember that you have knowledge worth sharing about disability services when a friend discloses that they are struggling due to a disability or medical condition. Remember to honor the confidentiality of anyone who confides in you.

Remember the invaluable work performed by the Black Panthers, the Grey Panthers, the Butterfly Brigade, and the International Association of Machinists. Remember that their support, supplies, and expertise enabled the sit-in to last. Disabled students gained the right to an education in part because of the different social justice groups that collaborated with the protestors. Remember that when students aren’t getting a fair shake at an education for reasons other than disability. Remember the power of collaboration when you come across women facing isolation in STEM fields, working class students going into debt to afford textbooks, trans students being referred to by the wrong pronouns, or students of color having their names mispronounced or mocked. Remember that as someone who has benefitted from different groups coming together to support disability rights you have the responsibility to pay it forward and support the right to an education for everyone.

If you can do all that without getting crabs? That means you’re one step ahead of the 504 protestors.

Katie Murphy is a graduate student in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University and student assistant at the Longmore Institute. She also runs Space Crip, a blog about disability in sci-fi/fantasy.