Graton activist recalls historic fight for the disabled

HolLynn D'Lil at home in Graton with letters she has written since 1993 asking businesses to remove barriers to accessibility. (LESA TANNER)


When people think about the Civil Rights Movement, they often picture Martin Luther King Jr., tear gas and violence in the streets. But another historic piece of the movement eludes most people, all but the disabled.

HolLynn D’Lil of Graton is hell-bent on fixing that with “Becoming Real in 24 Days,” her new book about 10-city protest that brought to light another population in need of equal rights. The so-called “504 Sit In” was a precursor of the activism that brought about the Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

To honor the occasion, an interactive, multimedia exhibit has been mounted in Berkeley that runs through Dec. 8 at the Ed Roberts Campus, 3075 Adeline St. D’Lil will be part of it and will appear at the free reception from 2-4:30 p.m. today.

D’Lil’s book gives her first-hand account of the demonstration that began April 5, 1977. On that day, more than 150 San Francisco protesters occupied the fourth floor of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s regional office and stayed there for 3½ weeks.

D’Lil had approached Ms. Magazine about covering the event and, armed with a Nikon camera, arrived with plans to take photographs and chronicle the demonstration. Resolute in her wheelchair, D’Lil soon joined others in disrupting business by refusing to leave. A passage in her book best captures the protest that preceded the takeover:

“What I recall about that first rally was the hope that floated through the crowd like a drug: WE CAN make a difference … the speakers’ words rocked over me like a tsunami, tossing me into a new level of awareness and self-regard.”

Each day of the demonstration, D’Lil drove from Sonoma and then returned to take care of her children, Chelsea and Trusten.

By day 24 of the 26-day demonstration, the Carter Administration signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 without language that would have that weakened it, requiring recipients of federal funds to provide equal access to people with disabilities. The language contained in Section 504 laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which extends protection to employment, state and local governments and privately-funded public accommodations.

During that seminal experience, D’Lil was galvanized by the people who surrounded her — the blind, the deaf, those in wheelchairs and crutches and canes.

“I began to understand that my limitations were not due to my disability but to the limitations imposed upon us by our society,” she said.

D’Lil was 22 when a car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. She accepted the confines of her wheelchair and her life until she met others who weren’t taking their fate so passively.

“A victory like that, when it’s about your whole personhood, can change your life,” she explained. “I think in a way, it’s the start of an addiction. You want more victories for the disenfranchised.”

Now 70, D’Lil said the protest helped her find her voice. She began testing it by learning to set herself free.

“I was raised by alcoholics, so I was a survivor of that environment,” she said. “I was told I had no value, that I didn’t matter.”

Soon she was able to find the courage to leave a marriage that wasn’t serving her or her children. Today, she continues to fight for the disenfranchised, firing off protest letters when she identifies inequality. Her next letter will take an inaccessible business to task, the Nimble & Finn’s Ice Cream Shop in the Guerneville Bank Club.

“There’s no place for anyone using a wheelchair to sit and enjoy our ice cream,” she pointed out. “There are just stools with high counters.”

D’Lil also serves on the boards of nonprofit agencies that include Designing Accessible Communities and the Coalition of Disability Access Professionals.

She is buoyed by her heroes — President Barack Obama, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and political commentator Rachel Maddow.

“They all represent disenfranchised minorities, black people, women and gay people,” D’Lil said. “Yet they rise far above any focus on their own minorities, applying their skills and experience to creating a better society for everyone.”

At her Graton home, which opens up to a lush garden, D’Lil unwinds by tooling around in her wheelchair, which can move a surprising 7 miles per hour. As she tends to plants, she laughs when explaining her gardening prowess: “I point and write checks.”

Asked what people don’t realize about those living life from a wheelchair, D’Lil said: “That we’re still people, just like them. Same hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows and desires.”