The ADA at 30

Photos by Tom Olin

Dozens of ADAPT activists crawled up the Capitol steps.

I didn’t think the Capitol Crawl would be an historic event and wasn’t even sure it was a good idea at the time. I’m glad I was wrong.

It was March 12, 1990, but the temperature in Washington, D.C., was in the mid-80s, and it was sunny. I was part of the Chicago ADAPT contingent meeting up with ADAPTers from other cities for our spring action. At the time, ADAPT stood for American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, and our reason for being was to ensure that all public transit vehicles and facilities were accessible for people with mobility disabilities. There was no federal access mandate, so in some cities lift-equipped buses were commonplace, but in others they were scarce. In Chicago, there wasn’t a single accessible bus.

ADAPT held actions every spring and fall in either D.C. or another strategically-selected city to push this agenda. And we did so ADAPT-style, by committing nonviolent acts of civil disobedience that often resulted in arrest.

The timing was perfect for this particular action. The Americans with Disabilities Act had passed overwhelmingly through the Senate but was stalled in the House. ADAPT was there to knock it loose.

We marched through the streets of D.C. and held a rally with other disability groups outside the U.S. Capitol Building. Various speakers waxed eloquent about the importance of the ADA. I remember feeling restless and a bit bored.

After all the speechifying, masses of ADAPTers moved over to the foot of the giant staircase outside of the Capitol Building, and I followed even though I didn’t know why. That’s how it is at ADAPT actions — only a few leaders know the target, and the rest of us just follow and trust. Since the success of an action often relies on the element of surprise, the fewer people who know about where the march is going, the lower the odds are that the police, who are always nearby, will overhear something and tip off the target.

I remember ADAPT leader Mike Auberger, a quadriplegic who spoke at the rally, telling me people were getting out of their wheelchairs and crawling up the steps as a vivid, symbolic demonstration of what the struggle to pass the ADA was all about. Congress was smugly ensconced in its ivory tower, trying to pretend that we didn’t exist. But we weren’t going to let them ignore us.

I wondered if the image of the crawl might project the opposite image. Disabled people crawling around might conjure images of sad, powerless beggars rather than strong, determined activists. But, then again, maybe not, I mused. It might intimidate those in Congress who were being obstructionists. What the hell, then. It was worth a try.

But there was no way I could get out of my wheelchair and crawl up steps. I suppose if I had insisted, somebody would’ve flung me over their shoulder and carried me up. Instead I took the accessible route to the plaza at the top of the stairs and joined those cheering the crawlers on and greeting them as they arrived.

I spoke with other ADAPTers who took part in the Capitol Crawl to see what they remember and have to say about it today. They are Bob Kafka and Stephanie Thomas from Austin, Larry Biondi from Chicago, Robin Stevens from Denver, Julie Farrar from Colonie, New York, and Anita Cameron from Rochester, New York.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: At that time, Bob and I were national organizers for ADAPT and we helped design the plan. During the rally, I got a group of people together who could crawl and were willing to get arrested, and we made our way over to the base of the stairs. When Bob gave us our cue, we dropped from our chairs and started to crawl. Though I was the first to drop to the ground, I was quickly overtaken by the other crawlers.

BOB KAFKA: I was further back but crawled also. At the time, we were both in manual chairs and more mobile than today.

THOMAS: Thank God someone brought our wheelchairs to the top.

KAFKA: The system people [disability advocacy lobbyists] were stalled. The ADA had gotten stuck in the House of Representatives, and they were not able to get it moving again. We wanted to show that “access is a civil right” is more than just words, that we were willing to take action. We wanted to make sure the statement we made was symbolic and visual.

Shaila Jackson carefully scoots backwards.

Shaila Jackson carefully scoots backwards.

ANITA CAMERON: I was living in Colorado Springs, and back then those of us from out west rode in caravans across the nation. Colorado chapters met up in Denver, and sometimes Utah and Texas would join us, or we’d meet along the way, picking up more folks as we went through Kansas and other states. I often rode in [ADAPT founder] Wade Blank’s van on these trips, so I got to hear a lot of brainstorming and planning.

I knew once the rally was over that the crawl would happen, and I thought it was a great idea. I felt that ADAPT needed to really highlight what it was like to live as second-class citizens and what the Americans with Disabilities Act would mean to us.

JULIE FARRAR: By the time of the crawl, I was about 19. I was pretty tiny and much more mobile. I was known for being able to crawl around, through, up, down, over police barriers, stairs and so on.

We were watching Bob Kafka and waiting for the signal to start crawling up the stairs. The feeling of camaraderie was palpable — the excitement on our march there, the staging. I don’t remember the speeches. I just remember feeling so proud in a very sacred communal way of being a part of it all.

LARRY BIONDI: It was extremely hot for March and when we reached the Capitol Building, we stopped in front of the steps. I had no inkling what the plan was and then a couple of people asked me if I wanted to crawl up the steps. A burst of energy came over me, so I said, “Why not?”

Ron, my personal assistant from college, assisted me crawling up the steps by putting his hands behind my feet so I could have leverage. When I made it to the top, I was exhausted and my elbows and knees were bleeding. Wade poured water on my face while I lay on my back.

I didn’t know that 30 years later what we did would evolve into an historical moment. Climbing those steps was symbolic of how badly the disability community wanted the ADA to get passed.

CAMERON: I was in line with my friend Frank McColmb, who had been in a nursing home for 43 years before being moved into his own place by Wade. When we got to the site, Frank’s attendants helped him to the stairs, and I took his manual wheelchair and pulled it up backwards beside him. It was a bit awkward because I had my white tactile cane as well, and Frank’s chair was heavy.

Halfway up, I became exhausted and gave Frank’s chair to his attendants and scooted backwards up the rest of the way. I went slowly and stopped to chat with a few folks to make sure they were OK.

I was excited, honored and humbled that I was helping to get a message across, and I’m not surprised that it was so historic. I felt that we were crawling our way into the history books.

ROBIN STEPHENS: It was hot as hell, especially when we were exerting ourselves, and there was no water until later at the top. I had been hanging with a blind friend and her new dog, and I asked her if she wanted to do the stairs with me. She said yes, so I parked my power wheelchair at the left side of the staircase and we slowly made our way up the steps to the landing, taking rests, making sure everyone was OK, offering help … and I crashed at the top, feeling totally dead, and helpless without my wheelchair. We finally got water and eventually my wheelchair.

THOMAS: It was hotter than hell, and I was soon soaked. Other folks were passing me by. I couldn’t go fast, but it wasn’t a race. Every step, I pulled myself up, adjusted my feet and pulled again. I was soon using the railing to pull myself with.

I saw so many people getting up those steps in so many ways, some moved rather easily, some with more difficulty. Some were being cheered on or crawling in groups, others by themselves. Some were being carried. It became a bit of a free for all, and that seemed to be so very appropriate. I was so glad to see all the people at the top. It was like a big hug from my peeps!

STEPHENS: Then the rotunda action took place the next day, along with our arrests, and our court appearances were the following day after that. I wrote a heart-felt speech for the judge, and when my turn came in court, I read it, got sentenced and rushed to the airport for my flight, which I missed. I returned to the hotel and listened to emotional discussion from fellow ADAPTers about what the demonstrations meant to everyone.

* * *

Many ADAPT activists say this demonstration in the Capitol Rotunda was more effective than the Crawl.

Many ADAPT activists say this demonstration in the Capitol Rotunda was more effective than the Crawl.

.
I’ve always felt the demonstration in the Capitol Building rotunda was much more effective than the crawl in knocking the ADA loose in the House. We gathered in the rotunda and our chanting reverberated like galloping horses. We demanded that House leadership come meet with us, and both the Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, and House Minority Leader Robert Michel soon complied. They told us some BS about how we all had to be patient and then left to a resounding chorus of boos. The chanting resumed, and soon the police moved in to arrest and remove over 100 of us.

But it’s the Capitol Crawl that’s considered by many to be the pivotal event that led to the passage of the ADA. In an interview with the Indiana Disability History Project, former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who introduced and championed the ADA, said of the Capitol Crawl, “When that hit the evening news all over America, we got the bill out of the House 30 days later.”

Since then, the Capitol Crawl has taken on an air of mythology. When Marca Bristo, president of Access Living, Chicago’s center for independent living, died last September, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, a wheelchair user, said, “Because she crawled up the steps of the Capitol to pass the ADA, I get to roll through its corridors to cast my votes in the U.S. Senate.”

I really don’t recall Marca being present for the Capitol Crawl, but it doesn’t matter. In the light of history, the event is seen as such an important political action that it’s assumed that everybody who was involved in the disability rights movement at the time must have been there, front and center.

The Littlest Activist

All the Way to the Top is a children’s book that tells the story of Jennifer Keelan, the little girl with CP who climbed the Capitol Building stairs with other ADAPT activists. In ways children can understand, the book shows how Keelan was left out of class activities and unable to roll down the sidewalk because of her disability. Even though she was so young, she was part of the crew that helped make the ADA a reality. The book can be found in all the usual places, including Amazon.

All the Way to the Top

Jennifer Keelan’s mom gives her a hug as she reaches the top of the Capitol steps.

We Will Ride!

In 1975, Rev. Wade Blank, a nondisabled community organizer, took a job assisting severely disabled young people in a Denver nursing facility. Seeing the injustice in their situation, he helped them move into the community. Once free, they realized they couldn’t get anywhere since public transportation wasn’t accessible, and the very first ADAPT protest, held in 1978, was to get lifts on Denver’s buses. Called “the gang of 19,” the protesters ultimately were successful. Then in 1983, Atlantis Community went national, forming ADAPT and advocating for laws to require accessible public transportation. Read more at adaptmuseum.net.