A collage of disabled people protesting by lying in front of a bus and George Bush signing the ADA.

ADAPT website, President George Bush Sr. signs ADA of 1990


ADAPT website, President George Bush Sr. signs ADA of 1990

Disability Activists Have Been Fighting For All of Us All Along

The fight to save health care has put disabled protestors in the limelight. But this wasn't their first time putting their lives on the line to battle discrimination.

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Almost immediately after voting “no” to Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), praise poured in for Senator John McCain (R-AZ), with many hailing him a hero. Senator McCain’s decision to choose people over party is laudable—as is that of Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who were steadfast in their opposition to the GOP health-care bill. But they are not the real heroes: It was disability activists who put their bodies on the line to save the ACA and Medicaid—and it is time we recognize that fully.

Members of ADAPT, a national group of disability-rights activists, were at the forefront of opposing the GOP’s attempts to repeal and replace the ACA from the beginning. At the same time the Senate released their first health-care bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, members of ADAPT held a “die-in” at Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) office. This direct action led to the arrest of 43 protestors, most of whom have disabilities. For more than a month, ADAPT and other disability activists held dozens of protests across the country, like ADAPT’s sit-in in Colorado that lasted nearly three days and resulted in the arrests of ten activists.

Disability activists continued the fight to save ACA right up until the final vote on the GOP health-care bill. Notably, members of ADAPT camped outside in front of the Senate building in the rain for three nights and two days before the vote 64 disability activists were arrested on Capitol Hill while protesting. In the end, over 500 people were arrested for protesting the GOP health-care bill and, it is safe to assume that the majority were people with disabilities.

While ADAPT’s recent actions to save the ACA and Medicaid are impressive and noteworthy, it is important to understand that these efforts are part of a long history of people with disabilities of mobilizing around disability-rights issues. The use of non-violent direct action techniques by disability activists, such as protests and sit-ins, dates back to the early 20th century when disabled veterans returning home from World War I organized protests in response to the government’s failure to provide them with rehabilitation services and compensation. In 1935, the League for the Physically Handicapped staged sit-ins in two government buildings because the federal government’s Works Progress Administration discriminated against people with disabilities. These actions led to the creation of 1,500 jobs in New York City, once again demonstrating the power of disability activism.

The United States saw substantial growth in disability activism during the 1960s and 1970s. The independent living movement emerged during the late 1960s, when students at UC-Berkeley, known as the “Rolling Quads” and led by activist Ed Roberts, began organizing to fight for greater accessibility and services at the college. Because of the group’s success, UC-Berkeley began providing personal care services to students with disabilities, which allowed them to live independently while attending college. In 1972, the first independent living center opened in Berkeley, California, and today there are more than 400 centers for independent living across the country.

Forty years ago, in April 1977, organized protests at federal buildings across the country, to pressure the Carter administration to sign regulations for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. At that time, 150 disability activists staged a 25-day sit-in a federal building in San Francisco, marking the largest direct action in a federal government building in the nation’s history.

Notably, also during the 1970s, ADAPT began its critical activism. In 1975, Reverend Wade Blank, a former nursing home employee, formed Atlantis, which assisted people with disabilities to leave nursing homes and live independently. Three years later, a group of Atlantis activists known as the “gang of 19,” staged a protest in Colorado demanding accessible public transportation. In 1983, Atlantis started ADAPT, who continued protesting for wheelchair lifts on busses. In 1990, after more than a decade of successfully fighting for accessible public transportation, ADAPT changed its focus and name (Americans Disabled Attendant Programs Today). ADAPT continues to fight for home- and community-based services that enable people with disabilities to live in their communities. Disability activist Anita Cameron explains on her blog, “We have gone from being considered rag-tag ‘militants,’ ‘radicals,’ and ‘hippies’ to being a powerful force to be reckoned with.”

By the 1980s, activists began mobilizing to push the federal government to pass a law similar to the Civil Rights Act for people with disabilities. In March of 1990, dozens of people with disabilities crawled up the stairs of the Capitol building demanding that Congress finally pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Once again, disability activists were successful and the ADA became law of the land on July 26, 1990.

Meanwhile, in 1988, the Deaf community organized the Deaf President Now protest. This weeklong protest was held at Gallaudet University, a college for Deaf and hard of hearing students, after the university refused to appoint a Deaf president. Ultimately, the Deaf community won and Dr. I. King Jordan, who is Deaf, became the university’s eighth president.

Time and time again, people with disabilities demonstrated their power to engage in activism. Of course, as the recent fight to save the ACA and Medicaid proved, disability activism improves the lives of nondisabled people as well. For example, all people benefit daily from curb-cuts, elevators, captioning on television, and ramps. These accessibility features, which make life easier for everyone, are the result of the strong fight by disability activists for passage of the ADA. Similarly, ADAPT’s recent efforts against the GOP health care bill will benefit the lives of millions of people in the United States who are insured by Medicaid. 

In addition to recognizing the strength of disability activism, it is equally important to acknowledge that the disability rights movement intersects with other social justice movements. Disability crosses race, national origin, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This means that many people with disabilities are members of multiple marginalized communities. Hence, it is important that the disability rights movement be inclusive of everyone who has a disability and that includes fighting for other social justice causes.

Similarly, other social justice movements must embrace disability rights as a priority. As I have written elsewhere, “To be truly inclusive, disability rights must be included in the resistance’s platform and, more importantly, in the movement itself.” Unfortunately, far too often people with disabilities are left out of other movements or are an afterthought. For instance, the Women’s March platform did not include disability rights until activists demanded it. While the Women’s March has since become more inclusive of disability rights, it demonstrates the importance of including people with disabilities from the beginning.

To be fair, social justice movements are not the only place disability activism is disregarded. While media coverage of ADAPT’s protests was far better than ever before, it was far from perfect. For example, a recent article in the New York Times, described “the Americans who saved health care” without ever mentioning people with disabilities. Unfortunately, this type of erasure is far too common for disability activists.

These are frightening times for marginalized communities. The nation has an administration that disregards LGBTQ rights. Likewise, immigrants and Muslims are under siege. Just recently, news broke that the Department of Justice will begin actively opposing affirmative action. And, we have a president who has demonstrated complete disdain for people with disabilities. Surely, we must continue to come together if we are to truly fight for social justice for all; and, that must include recognizing each other’s strengths and achievements.

Opposition to the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace the ACA will certainly go down in the history books as one of our nation’s most critical movements. Let’s make sure the role of disability activists is not forgotten.



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