Jan 4, 2023 - Politics

40 years of Denver's disability rights movement inspire nationwide action

A woman looking down with ADAPT's flag hanging above her.

Dawn Russell, a member of ADAPT's Denver chapter, in front of ADAPT's flag in 2005. Photo: Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Denver is the birthplace of a prominent grassroots organization, American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT), that uses civil disobedience and mass arrests in the fight for disability rights.

Why it matters: 40 years after its official creation in 1983, ADAPT's nonviolent, direct action tactics have inspired a nationwide movement, with 36 active chapters in 25 states.

Go deeper: See iconic photos from the last four decades of ADAPT's struggle for disability rights in Denver and nationwide.

1978, Denver: Members of the "Gang of 19," which would become ADAPT, blockade Denver city buses for two days to protest the lack of wheelchair lifts. Photo: Dick Davis/Rocky Mountain News via Denver Public Library's Western History Collection
A group of people in wheelchairs bludgeon a sidewalk curb with sledgehammers.
1980, Denver: George Roberts, left, and Les Hubbard strike a sidewalk curb as other members of the Atlantis Community look on. Members of Atlantis, an independent community living center, formed the "Gang of 19" and would later start ADAPT. Photo: John Sunderland/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Why representation matters, according to movement photographer Tom Olin:

  • Most "look at people with disabilities like 'poor thing'; it's real important for groups to say, Hey we're strong! We need photos [that show that]," Olin tells Axios.
"I was at an action and there were three photographers taking the same shot. When I saw the newspaper and I saw their shots, [for] one photographer, the chair was the most important thing, [as] the symbol of disability. I was more focused on that person's face, how he exuded that power that came from being oppressed for so long."
People in wheelchairs protest outside of a McDonald's restaurant.
1984, Denver: ADAPT members Mike Auberger, Bob Conrad, David Sheckles and other demonstrators call on McDonald's to make current and future restaurants wheelchair accessible. Photos: Bill Wunsch/The Denver Post via Getty Images; Brian Moss/Rocky Mountain News via Denver Public Library's Western History Collection
A group of people in wheelchairs holding protest signs in front of the American Airlines airport terminal.
1986, Denver: At Stapleton International Airport, a picket line protests the Supreme Court’s ruling that only airlines receiving direct federal funding must follow a disability nondiscrimination statute. Photo: David Cornwell/Rocky Mountain News via Denver Public Library's Western History Collection

Tom Malone and Shaila Jackson (below, left photo) and 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins (right), were among the protestors who crawled up the U.S. Capitol steps to persuade Congress to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  • Years later as an adult, Keelan-Chaffins mused "it was the image of me climbing those steps that was the final decision to get the ADA passed."
1990, Washington D.C.: The Capitol Crawl. Photos: Tom Olin
A diptych: on the left, a crowd of people in wheelchairs riding down the street. On the right: a person uses braces to walk down the street.
2003, Yeadon, Pennsylvania.: Over 200 ADAPT members, including Adam Nielson (right), trekked 144 miles in the "Free Our People" march and ride from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to push for legislation that would help fund long-term home care. Photos: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

In 2017, the group made headlines when their actions across the country helped defeat the GOP's attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid's budget by over $800 billion.

  • In Denver, local ADAPT members held a sit-in at U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner's office for 58 hours before being arrested.
A group of people in wheelchairs, with one person lying on the ground, sits in a room surrounded by police.
2017, Denver: ADAPT members, including local longtime disability rights advocate Carrie Ann Lucas, who died in 2019, hold a sit-in at Sen. Cory Gardner's office to pressure him to vote against the health care bill that would shrink Medicaid. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images
A group of protestors wearing the same outfit shout and hold protest signs outside.
2017, Denver: ADAPT activist Jose Torres-Vega leads protesters in a chant at the Save Medicaid Rally near Sen. Cory Gardner's office. The week before, 10 ADAPT protesters were arrested after refusing to leave his office during a sit-in. Photo: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
A crowd of people in front of the U.S. Capitol at night hold up an illuminated sign that reads "Care Can't Wait".
2021, Washington, D.C.: Disability rights activists and caregiving advocates hold a vigil in front of the U.S. Capitol to urge Congress to include full federal funding for home- and community-based care services in the Build Back Better Plan. Photo: Larry French/Getty Images for The Arc of the United States

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