Communication Studies, Department of


First Advisor

Kristen Hoerl

Date of this Version



Finney, D. E. (2020). Fighting for 504: Negotiating hegemonic ability through verbal advocacy and disabled embodiment [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: Communication Studies, Under the Supervision of Professor Kristen Hoerl. Lincoln, Nebraska: June, 2020.

Copyright 2020 Drew E. Finney


In my thesis, I look at San Francisco’s 504 sit-in for disability rights. I argue that both the verbal advocacy and the embodied actions of protestors demonstrate that dis/ability is constructed through a hegemonic process. I contend that combating hegemonic understandings of disability creates a tension between being a counter hegemonic movement and desiring the benefits of hegemonic legibility. To make these arguments, my thesis draws several conclusions. I argue that activists enacted a civil- rights framework to communicate the need for Section 504 to the public. I explain that activists adopted the role of educator to address problematic ideas about the meaning of dis/ability in the press and to the government. By these frameworks, activists demonstrated the need to seek hegemonic legibility, for it granted disabled people important institutional protections. By engaging in this protest, activists demonstrated that they wanted hegemonic legibility on their own terms. Activists established their terms by becoming a political force, which used both individual bodies to show the experience of being disabled and a collective body to make the movement accessible for diverse groups. While the individual body challenges the notion that being disabled equals being weak, the collective body challenges the very categorization of bodies as “disabled.” As a collective body, disabled activists used and manipulated the space of the Health Education and Welfare (HEW) offices to communicate the need for an accessible world. By using space as an argument, disabled activists challenged the hegemonic meanings of dis/ability inherent in-built environments. While occupying the HEW building, activists demonstrated that the struggle to gain hegemonic legibility begins in supportive communities. During the protest, activists empowered and legitimized the disability rights movement by utilizing California’s Bay Area as a rhetorical and embodied resource. Despite the movement’s central tension between being a counter hegemonic movement and desiring the benefits of hegemonic legibility, this protest shows that strategically appealing to both hegemonic and counter hegemonic meanings allowed activists to restructure the meanings of dis/ability. This thesis illustrates that ability is a hegemonic process because disabled people use several resources to unsettle the boundaries between ability and disability.

Advisor: Kristen Hoerl