woodward-mcconnell-disability health care protest

The whole nation watched as ADAPT activists, from Washington, D.C., to Fairbanks, Alaska, staged sit-ins, die-ins and other protests this past summer, often being arrested. Images of wheelchair users being dragged out of our elected officials’ offices chanting, “No cuts to Medicaid, save our Liberty!” flooded social and mainstream media alike. The power of the images by themselves was electrifying, and the message was communicated in a visceral way.

Disabled rights protestors were the first to focus media attention on the Senate bill that would have reduced Medicaid funds by 53 percent. More than 80 percent of those on Medicaid are disabled, elderly and children — and block grants allowing states to decide who gets what would have pitted these populations against each other for dwindling funds or forced states to raise taxes, either of which would have been destabilizing, at least.

The Affordable Care Act is imperfect — markets must be shored up, premiums lowered. But its vital protections for people with disabilities who use Medicaid-funded long term care services were at risk.

The grim threat was blocked by disabled advocates, especially ADAPT, and the media took note:

On June 22, Sen. Mitch McConnell introduced his health care bill that called for deep cuts to Medicaid. Then, he instructed the Capitol Police to remove the ADAPT activists who were protesting in his office. That set off a media firestorm as CNN ran live coverage of disabled people being carried away from the halls of Congress.

“Blood on the floor outside of Leader McConnell’s office,” tweeted an ABC News reporter, referencing a cut National ADAPT organizer Bruce Darling sustained to his head while being arrested.

A widely-shared photo of another ADAPT organizer, Stephanie Woodward, shows her arm held at an odd angle while she is carried off by the police. “Generally, Capitol Police don’t arrest in offices unless the legislator asks them to, so it’s pretty clear McConnell didn’t care to talk to us because he ordered those of us in his office to be arrested,” said Woodward to Democracy Now. “I don’t blame them. They had a job to do, and so did I. It just so happens that our jobs conflicted.”

That evening, The Rachel Maddow Show, which is the highest-ranking cable news show in the nation, ran a 21-minute-long story focusing on the history of ADAPT and the fight to save Medicaid.

“It felt like a breakthrough to a lot of us,” says Darling. “There was really a collective response to the piece, people suddenly felt validated, like, we’re now real.”

Darling was especially impressed — and relieved — at how careful Maddow was to show ADAPT’s long history of disciplined, spectacular demonstrations. “It’s a testament to the work our community has done for 30 years that we had people trained up across the country ready and able to do these demonstrations. We worked really hard on message discipline: The point is that they’re slashing Medicaid, we’re going to die, not how the police are treating us.

From this first day until the night of the final vote, the media kept a spotlight on ADAPT and other disabled activists.

Protests Erupted Across America

By June 26, ADAPT protests had spread out across the nation, including places not normally seen as hotbeds of unrest, such as El Paso and Indianapolis. Activists used the media spotlight to tell how important Medicaid is to their ability to live independently in the community.
“We can’t tolerate the Senate healthcare bill’s attack on our freedom to live in our own homes,” said Melva Iris Flores, a quadriplegic from Indianapolis. “Medicaid funds the life-or-death services I need to live in my home with my husband.”

Denver activists held a die-in at Sen. Garner’s office that ended up lasting 55 hours, until the police arrested them. “They said they’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid,” reported a local TV station. “And that’s where they are tonight.”

There was even a demonstration in the furthest corner of the United States — Fairbanks, Alaska — in front of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office.

“Normally disability isn’t about politics,” explained Doug Toelle, who has MS and is the advocacy director of Access Alaska to a local media outlet. “Disability is an equal opportunity minority group, everyone is welcome to join — at any second — but with this hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington, there is no way to avoid the partisan nature of this bill.”

Teisha Simmons, a quad also from Fairbanks, has a master’s degree and a job, but says without Medicaid-funded personal assistance that would all be at risk. “If I were to not have caregivers show up, not only would I not be able to go to work, but I would not be able to volunteer in the community. I also have a 12-year-old daughter,” she says. “When I came across legislators in the past, they’ve said, ‘Well family needs to step up and do that.’ If my family were to step up and do that, then we are asking my sister to quit her full-time job and put her family into poverty.”

And on July 12, a group from New Orleans calling themselves the Trach Mamas packed up their medically fragile kids and chartered a bus to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. “To not have to bury anyone on this bus is worth it,” said Jessica Michot. Michot, a progressive who voted for Hillary Clinton, joined with Angela Lorio, a conservative Trump supporter, to found Trach Mamas and protest the bill

Medicaid is Saved — for Now

“It was all hands on deck,” says Darling about the grueling work of organizing actions across the nation. “We’d go into a day knowing we’d have a certain number of demonstrations and then a bunch would just spontaneously happen. People would call up saying we’re at the location and we said, ‘what location?’ To see how it played out all across the country was an incredible thing, it was watching history happen. I was lucky to see it.”

The protests raged on, a crescendo of chants leading up to the final vote on July 27. The bill failed when Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and John McCain joined the Democrat Caucus in voting no.

With this vote, Trumpcare officially died and Medicaid was saved.

Although disabled activists were not the only ones protesting the bill, many in the media believe it was their dedication and sacrifice that made the difference.

“We have been prepared for this fight for decades,” said Amber Smock, an ADAPT organizer from Chicago, in Elle Magazine’s Aug. 1 article,  “If You Celebrated the Health Care Vote Last Week, You Should Probably Thank a Disabled Activist.” “People with disabilities have been organizing for our lives since the 1960s, if not before. … I think the new thing is that others are now seeing us in a way they did not before.