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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Kitty Cone Disability Rights Leader & Activist passes away March 21, 2015 at 70

Kitty Cone
as appeared in Beyond Chron by Lainey Feingold on March 23, 2015
Curtis “Kitty” Cone, who played a key role in the passage of regulations implementing the landmark Section 504 disability rights legislation, died on March 21, 2015 at the age of 70. A progressive activist whose agenda covered myriad social justice campaigns, Cone’s final Facebook post was on February 14 when she wrote “Excellent explanation of dangers of fracking” above a Sierra Club video. It was a fitting social media ending for the life long activist who worked for justice to the very end.
I met Kitty when I began working for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) in 1992. She was instrumental in my development as a disability rights lawyer. By example and through candid conversation she taught me the corrosive affect of pity, the power of disability civil rights.
The world has lost a fighter for social justice and a woman of fierce commitment to progressive ideals and to equality in all it forms. Her family has lost a beloved member, her son Jorge a wonderful mother. I and countless others have lost a loyal, supportive, kind friend.
Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when she was 15, Cone is well known as a disability rights activist. She worked at all the Bay Area disability rights organizations: The World Institute on Disability, the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, and DREDF.
And in 1977 she was one of the key organizers behind demonstrations protesting government delays in issuing regulations to give teeth to one of the country’s first disability rights laws, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As Beyond Chron editor Randy Shaw recounts in The Activist’s Handbook, Cone and others led the San Francisco disability community in a 28-day occupation of HEW offices in the San Francisco federal building.
It was a textbook example of how to lead a successful protest, thanks in large part to Kitty Cone’s organizing skills.
Kitty wrote about the experience in her Short History of the 504 Sit In, explaining its “historic importance:”
For the first time we had concrete federal civil rights protection.  We had shown ourselves and the country through network TV that we, the most hidden, impoverished, pitied group of people in the nation were capable of waging a deadly serious struggle that brought about profound social change. The sit in was a truly transforming experience the likes of which most of us had never seen before or ever saw again.  Those of us with disabilities were imbued with a new sense of pride, strength, community and confidence. For the first time, many of us felt proud of who we were.  And we understood that our isolation and segregation stemmed from societal policy, not from some personal defects on our part and our experiences with segregation and discrimination were not just our own personal problems.”
But as her final Facebook fracking post illustrates, disability rights work was just one facet of Kitty’s progressive activism. The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley has an excellent oral history project recording the leaders of the disability rights and independent living movement, and thankfully Kitty’s story is part of the project.
Kitty’s history was recorded during twelve interviews between 1996 and 1998; you can read Kitty Cone’s oral history on the project’s website. The transcript runs over 300 pages and spans Kitty’s life, beginning with her 1944 birth in Illinois.
Any place you dip into Kitty’s narrative you will find examples of a life dedicated to justice, fairness and equality. She attributed her lifelong commitment to racial equality to racism she saw first hand as she travelled in the south as a child with her black nanny.
During college in 1964 she was very involved in Friends of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], raising money for bail for members arrested in the South and sponsoring the SNCC Freedom Singers to come and sing on the University of Illinois campus.
She protested segregation in Champaign, Illinois, getting arrested and garnering press coverage: “A number of us got arrested,” Cone explains in her oral history. “I ended up getting a whole lot of news coverage because my grandfather had been the president of a bank there, and the family was very well known in Champaign.”
And she protested the war in Viet Nam, and organized others to do the same. It was a war that turned her into a socialist:
“I voted for Lyndon Johnson because I thought that he was–we were all very scared of Barry Goldwater, and Lyndon Johnson had–what was his famous quote about not sending American boys into–anyway, the big thing with Barry Goldwater was that he was going to bomb North Vietnam, that he was going to bomb Vietnam. And immediately after the election Lyndon Johnson started to bomb and escalated the war and sent lots of troops in.”
And there was more. She travelled in Latin and South America, and spent time in Nicaragua with the Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries. She was a political organizer in the South. And she wrote a novel with politically radical characters!
But life for Kitty was more than politics. In the early 1980’s she went to Mexico with her then-partner Kathy Martinez to adopt her son Jorge, who was by her side when she died on Saturday. She loved opera and had a million friends and a close family, including the women who worked for her.    Kitty Cone made an enormous difference in the world. May her work and spirit and love continue to be a light to people everywhere.
Lainey Feingold is a disability rights lawyer in Berkeley California— thanks to some wonderful teachers and role models including Kitty Cone. More information on her website at http://lflegal.com
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