Disability 101: ADAPT and civil disobedience
September 8, 2010
I’ve always admired people who have thrown themselves into civil rights battles. Mahandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are my heroes. They devoted their lives to their passion for obtaining civil rights for their people. They had guts beyond belief. They threw themselves willingly into very dangerous situations while pursuing their civil disobedience campaigns. They were passionate about nonviolence but make no doubt about it, they had nerves of steel. And they changed the world.
Similar heroes exist in the disability rights movement. I would like to tell you about a group of individuals with disabilities whose guts matched that of Gandhi and MLK.
ADAPT is a disability rights organization that started in Denver and now has chapters across the United States. Many people see ADAPT as being a radical organization because of their history of nonviolent civil disobedience. In reality, they just followed the footsteps of Gandhi and MLK.
If we trace the history of ADAPT, we must start first with Reverend Wade Blank. Blank, who did not have a disability, had been involved in the African-American civil rights movement. In the 1970s, he began working in a nursing home in Denver. Blank found deplorable conditions for young residents with disabilities and began advocating for reforms. Eventually his efforts resulted in his dismissal. The nursing home was unwilling to tolerate his reforms.
In response, Blank helped 19 of those nursing home residents who had disabilities move out. He provided needed personal attendant services himself in order to allow these individuals the opportunity to live in the community. This laid the foundation for the Atlantis Community, an independent living center still operating in Denver.
The problem was that once these individuals established their homes in the community, they found they couldn’t get anywhere. In those days, there were no lifts or ramps on buses, and without accessible transportation, these newly liberated individuals were unable to get anywhere.
Blank used his skills gained in the African American civil rights movement to mobilize the 19 into a civil disobedience campaign designed to secure accessible public transit. ADAPT, which originally stood for American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, was born.
ADAPT members hit the streets in Denver and stopped the buses. Their intention was to immobilize buses in protest of their lack of accessibility. Activists who used wheelchairs would work as a team, with some folks parking themselves in their wheelchairs in front of the bus, and others parking their wheelchairs behind the bus, so the bus couldn’t move. Others would move toward the bus doors, park their chairs, and crawl up the bus steps. In 1978, ADAPT activists were successful in immobilizing an inaccessible Denver bus for two days on the corner of Broadway and Colfax.
ADAPT grew to be a nationwide movement with protests being held across the U.S. ADAPT continued to work for accessible public transit throughout the 1980s. Success appeared within grasp when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which would require accessible public transit, stalled in Congress. ADAPT activists showed up in Washington D.C. and crawled up the Capitol steps to demand full passage of the ADA, which was at last signed into law on July 26, 1990.
ADAPT activists are also my heroes. Every person with a disability owes their freedom to these activists.
ADAPT is still busy today with additional disability civil rights issues. One of their national bases remains at the Atlantis Community in Denver where they now advocate for community supports which will allow people with severe disabilities to remain living in their communities rather than being forced into nursing homes.