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Overlooked No More: Kitty Cone, Trailblazer of the Disability Rights Movement

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This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

It wasn’t long after Kitty Cone had enrolled at the Mount Vernon Seminary in Washington that she felt the grip of discrimination.

Cone walked with a cane, and the headmistress of the seminary, a private women’s school, began imposing strange rules that segregated her from the rest of the student body. For instance, she demanded that Cone bathe in a separate tub outside of the suite that she shared with three other girls. But the tub was so big that she struggled to get out of it, so she just used the one in her suite. Another time, she was barred from attending a school activity, but she went anyway. Those acts got her expelled.

“For a variety of reasons, the headmistress threw me out, but all having to do with disability,” Cone said in an interview for the University of Illinois archives in 2009. “I think she was worried about liability, looking back on it, because she gave me these prohibitions.”

It wasn’t the first time Cone would experience injustice because of her disability, and it wouldn’t be the last.

This was the 1960s, a time when people with disabilities did not have basic civil rights in the United States — movie theaters could refuse to sell tickets to wheelchair users, for example, and there was little support for blind and deaf people. As evidenced by Cone’s experience, even an education was not a guarantee. People with disabilities were often institutionalized and largely isolated from society. It wasn’t until 1990 that discrimination against them was banned under the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act.

Cone’s expulsion from school helped inspire her to devote the rest of her life to fighting for disability rights.

“Things that happened in my life determined the fact that I would be an activist,” she said in a 2013 oral history. “So many choices in my life had been circumscribed by the fact that I had a disability.”

Cone was the lead organizer and strategist of the 504 Sit-In, a nearly four-week-long protest in April 1977 in which nearly 150 disabled people and their allies took over the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Their intent was to pressure the Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. to sign regulations that would implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prohibiting programs receiving federal aid from discriminating against any “otherwise qualified individuals with a disability.” The act paved the way for the A.D.A.

Cone was the “organizational brains” behind the sit-in, said Mary Lou Breslin, a close friend who was at the demonstration, helping to mobilize a coalition of supporters among other activist groups, including the Black Panthers, who supplied hot meals to the protesters, and machinist union workers, who rented trucks to help transport them when they took the fight to Washington.

“She believed in the depth of her soul that the broader you build something, the better chance you have of success,” said Lorrie Beth Slonsky, who met Cone at a Section 504 advocacy training in 1979 and remained her friend.

The 504 Sit-In is the longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in U.S. history.

The group ultimately succeeded in getting the regulations signed, and in a victory speech she gave on April 30, 1977, Cone said the disability community had “written a new page in American history.”

“We showed strength and courage and power and commitment,” she said, “that we the shut-ins, or the shut-outs, we the hidden, supposedly the frail and the weak, that we can wage a struggle at the highest level of government and win.”

Curtis Selden Cone was born on April 7, 1944, into a wealthy family in Champaign, in eastern Illinois. Her father, Hutchinson Ingham Cone Jr., served in the Army for two decades, giving his family a rootless life as he was periodically assigned to a new base. He and his wife, Molly Mattis Cone, a homemaker, and Curtis and her younger brother, George, lived in Augusta, Ga., Bethesda, Md., and Tokyo.

Cone learned she had muscular dystrophy around her 15th birthday. At the time, doctors said she wouldn’t live beyond the age of 20.

She attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study English literature. It was there she became immersed in political organizing and was elected to the Student Senate. She fought against racial segregation in local housing and got involved in the advocacy group Students for a Democratic Society. She left school for a semester when her mother died of throat cancer in 1963. Though she went back, she never graduated.

Cone then lived in Chicago for three years and worked as an antiwar organizer with the Young Socialist Alliance, an offshoot of the Socialist Workers Party. Her left-wing politics alienated her from her father, a former lieutenant, and the two remained largely estranged for the rest of their lives.

As an adult, Cone traveled with friends and family members to Latin America and Eastern Europe. By then she had started using a wheelchair, and inaccessibility became a frequent problem. Buses had no lifts, bathroom doors were too narrow, and buildings had no ramps.

“Whether it was a hotel or a bus or an airport, she had many, many experiences on airplanes where her wheelchair was broken, where she was bruised,” said Georgia Springer, a cousin who lived with Cone for many years.

In 1972, Cone moved to Oakland, Calif., for the warmer weather and to be closer to friends. There she worked with the Center for Independent Living to push for public resources that would allow people with disabilities to be self-reliant. It was during this time that she met Judith Heumann, who would also become a leader of the 504 Sit-In.

“Kitty was a fireball,” Heumann said in a phone interview. “The way she expressed her words was like lightning. People listened to her, and they followed her.”

Cone came to date a blind woman, Kathy Martinez, the two bonding over disability politics, and Cone became close to Martinez’s family in New Mexico.

“In many ways, our disabilities complemented each other, because I could help Kitty with physical tasks and she could help me with visual tasks,” Martinez said in a phone interview. “She was in a power wheelchair, and I would put on roller skates. We were kind of an iconic duo because we could speed around Berkeley a lot faster than if I was walking.”

They could not wed because gay marriage was illegal, but Cone still wanted a child. She looked into adoption in the United States but encountered too much red tape. In 1981, she moved to Tijuana, Mexico, with Martinez and there adopted a baby, Jorge.

They moved back to the Bay Area a couple of years later, and Cone continued her activist work, taking up jobs at the World Institute on Disability and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

She died of pancreatic cancer on March 21, 2015. She was 70.

Cone’s efforts, particularly with the 504 Sit-In, helped give birth to a new era that empowered many people with disabilities and gave them a sense of pride.

“I am thankful for my disability,” she said in the 1990s for an oral history. “I feel like the constraints and the choices that it has given me have made me who I am. And, you know, I like who I am.”

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