Standing Up for Those Who Can’t

Kitty Cone was 15 years old when she was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. The diagnosis was incorrect and subsequent surgeries made her condition worse. She was able to walk with canes, but at school, she wasn’t able to go up and down stairs. Her cousins carried her up and down the stairs, so she could get to classes. She attended 13 schools eventually because of her disability and the rules imposed upon her.

She started college at the University of Illinois where she got around in a wheelchair. During her second year, she applied to be able to live off campus because of the difficulty of dorm life. She was denied by the Dean who falsely claimed her reason for living off campus was to have sex. She left the university six credit hours short of a degree.

As a result of her own physical limitations, Kitty became involved in advocating for others. She moved to California and began working for the Center for Independent Living. With her prior efforts at advocacy, she helped bring awareness to the needs of those whose mobility was limited.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 contained Section (504) which provided access to federal facilities for people with disabilities. The legislation also applied to any facilities receiving federal funds. The intent was to essentially expand access across America. But the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare refused to implement regulations to enforce the section. Kitty helped organize demonstrations across the country including a sit-in at a federal facility in San Francisco. As a result of the protests, Section 504 regulations were enacted and enforced. This was the first recognition that people with disabilities have civil rights.

Kitty was a fierce advocate for other causes including social justice, ending poverty, and opposition to military interventions, especially in Vietnam. She also became a personal advocate for adoption rights when she was denied the right to adopt a child because she was single and disabled. She was forced to travel to Mexico to adopt a child.

Hidden heroes are often advocates for causes they believe in. Their advocacy is frequently born out of their own frustrations. They are observers of wrongs and fight to make them right. They are organizers and ambassadors to enlist others in their advocacy. We benefit from the changes they bring about but rarely do we know their names or the struggles they endured.

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“The signing of the regulations signified the public birth of the disability rights movement.”
– Kitty Cone

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