The regulation seemed a perfect target when it was put on the Reagan administration's first "hit list" in March, 1981: sweeping, stringent and potentially expensive, it required local governments, universities and hundreds of other federal grant recipients to ensure equal access for the handicapped.
Two years later, W. Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, handed a disability rights advocate a letter that said the government had abandoned its effort to modify the rule.
When the fight began, advocates for the handicapped said they believed the most they could do was delay the changes. But a group of neophyte lobbyists played David to the administration's Goliath, marshaling an informal coalition of local advocates for the handicapped under their banner.
The battle was joined two months after Ronald Reagan's inauguration, when Vice President Bush's Task Force for Regulatory Relief asked the Justice Department to review a variety of federal civil rights rules under its jurisdiction, particularly the disability rights regulations.
Two disability rights advocates, Robert Funk and Pat Wright, arrived in Washington in January, 1982, when the first draft of a rewritten rule surfaced. Wright, who has a variety of ailments and is legally blind, and Funk, who lost a leg to disease, were opening the Washington office of a small California organization called the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc.
The two say they came to Washington hoping to raise the fund's profile and gain support from established advocacy groups for the blind, the deaf and the mentally or physically handicapped. The draft revisions, which were sent to their group anonymously in a plain brown envelope, were just the issue they needed.
The draft proposed giving federal grant recipients more leeway in deciding whether to accommodate the disabled. It also suggested cutting back the number of organizations subject to this rule and other civil rights rules for women and minority groups.
Wright and Funk called a meeting of nine national organizations, ranging from the Paralyzed Veterans of America to the National Center for Law and the Deaf. Preoccupied with fighting budget cuts, the more established groups agreed to let the Californians lead the fight to retain the so-called 504 rule (named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973).
The fund had its issue and its coalition; the Office of Management and Budget gave it a rallying cry. In March, 1982, the OMB's proposed changes were leaked. They said that in some cases grant recipients could weigh the cost of accommodation against the "social value" of the handicapped person involved.
"It was a terrible mistake," OMB attorney Michael McConnell said later. "That language was the opposite of our policy views at all times." As Funk described it: "This was a cost-benefit analysis of how human you are."
Wright and Funk immediately sent out bulletins to scores of local groups, generating several thousand protest letters to the OMB. The mailing list of local groups had been easy to come by--many of them had attended training sessions on disability rights run by the new group and funded from 1978-81 by federal grants totaling more than $500,000.
The lobbyists then arranged to meet C. Boyden Gray, Bush's counsel, and a number of OMB officials. Gray, who seemed sympathetic, became the lobbyists' contact in the administration, holding frequent meetings with various disability rights advocates.
Among them was Evan Kemp, a wheelchair-bound polio victim and former government attorney. Kemp, whose Disability Rights Center shares office space with Wright and Funk, joined their effort.
Gray became a mediator between the lobbyists and the federal attorneys rewriting the rule.
But the lobbyists say they didn't believe they could derail the changes until last fall, when an administration proposal to weaken a separate rule on the education of handicapped children became a political and public relations disaster.
After a firestorm of public criticism and front-page stories, key elements of the education proposals were withdrawn.
The episode helped link the fund's liberal activists to a more conservative constituency: parents of handicapped children. And many of them had ties to powerful Republicans.
"A large constituency had formed that was going to oppose any changes ," McConnell of the OMB said.
That constituency soon made itself felt. With House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel's (R-Ill.) help, Sally Hoerr, president of the Illinois Alliance for Exceptional Children and Adults, met with White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III to oppose any changes.
A representative of Americans United for Life met with Reynolds to ask how an administration fighting for handicapped infants' right to treatment could cut back the civil rights protections of handicapped adults.
In January, Gray showed Kemp and Wright the final draft of the rule changes. Why, the lobbyists asked, was any change necessary? Federal court decisions had already nullified the rule's most expensive provisions: requirements for accessible subways and buses and for colleges to provide sign-language interpreters for deaf students.
Gray agreed. But two more months passed before Reynolds agreed to abandon nearly two years of work and announce that the rule would remain untouched.
"When we talked over the proposed regulations, we figured maybe we hadn't accomplished a lot and we should leave things the way they were," Reynolds said.