The history of disabled activism

May 13, 2009

Ed Hoffmans, with assistance from Tom Wilson, looks at the history of disability activism, including the organization ADAPT.

THE DISABILITY community is a large percentage of the U.S. population.

Census data would say it is 18.7 percent of the overall population. This translates into 54.4 million people with disabilities in 2005. The data also has a sub-category of 12 percent of the population with a severe disability.

People with disabilities face significant oppression in our society. The unemployment rate is very high. Many people with disabilities receive inadequate education, and large numbers of people with disabilities are forced out of the mainstream of society and into often abusive institutions. Even with civil rights legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities are marginalized.

The modern history of disability activism is often said to begin with Ed Roberts and other students with quadriplegia at the University of California-Berkeley in the 1960s.

Ed had polio as a youth and was paralyzed in all but two fingers. His mother made sure he was educated, and, as an excellent student, he was accepted into the university. He was at first forced to live in the infirmary, where he had his iron lung where he slept.

Ed and his group were inspired by the civil rights movement and student movement, and started to fight to live in regular settings, and to have accessible classroom buildings, curb cuts for wheelchair users and accessible public transit. They later took their struggle to the city of Berkeley and founded the first Center for Independent Living (CIL) in 1972. These activists went on to form and lead many other organizations.

There have always existed organizations dedicated to single disabilities, like the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society, but these were never run by and for people with disabilities. Frequently, they were formed to raise money for research to cure the disability. Other organizations like the Federation of the Blind only worked to help blind people.

The CILs were unique because they were controlled by people with disabilities, were cross-disability (meaning all people with disabilities could participate) and had a philosophy of independent living that said that people with disabilities did not have to live with the barriers society had erected, and that society had to change to accommodate them.

CILs have some limitations due to the reliance on a preponderance of government funding and some foundation money, but after the creation of CILs, other progressive disability organizations came into existence, like ADAPT, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, People First and Mind Freedom.

IN THIS article, I want to focus on ADAPT. It was formed in 1983 in Denver. Wade Blank, a non-disabled man, had participated in the civil rights movement. He had moved to Denver from Ohio, and taken a job working in a nursing home. He soon realized that they were not very nice places and began to move the younger residents with disabilities into their own apartments.

This group then began to see that there were problems living in the community--like no way to go to school or work on public transit. They organized a famous sit-in, holding their action in front of buses, all inaccessible, in downtown Denver. This tactic was copied by others around the country, and soon, they had a network of activists who were interested in using civil disobedience to win their demands.

ADAPT is known to be the most militant wing of the disability rights movement. Recently, at the end of April 2009, ADAPT did one of its two annual national-level protests in Washington, D.C. The issue was the need to change long-term care in the U.S. so people with disabilities are not forced to live in hell-like institutions.

On one of the days of action, activists handcuffed or chained themselves to the White House fence, condemning Obama for not living up to his campaign commitment to pass the Community Choice Act. Ninety-one were arrested. On another day of the five-day action, ADAPT had a large rally with Service Employees International Union, which represents many of the home care workers whoprovide care for people with disabilities. Other protests targeted Congress and emphasized the necessity of including home and community services as part of any health reform passed by Congress.

ADAPT has been successful at changing U.S. policies on disability and has maintained a high level of struggle over many years.

I WANT to examine some of the characteristics that have made ADAPT so strong and important in the disability community. These will be discussed in no particular order as to overall importance, but together go a long way in defining the group.

ADAPT has a decision process that looks a lot like democratic centralism. The chapters all have a large amount of input, but once a decision is made, it is important that everyone follow the direction set from above.

ADAPT is highly disciplined and, with a highly organized structure, carries out complex tactics. ADAPT has no loyalty to parties, Republican or Democratic, and does not believe in political saviors, but in its own power. There is no collapse of activity in presidential or other election years. It believes in aggressive direct action, and has used civil disobedience as its main tactic, but not its only one.

ADAPT has had to struggle with the cult of personality in its leadership, but has come out of the struggle stronger and with more collective leadership. Women play an important role in leadership. The vast majority of activists have disabilities themselves. This means that the group unites the daily struggle for a dignified productive life with the struggle for broad gains in disability rights and for needed social services in their movement.

ADAPT members have created a rich diversity of cultural expression that they use at the actions. These include music, poetry, drama and the visual arts. ADAPT is technologically sophisticated and reaches out using the latest innovations like Twitter and Facebook. ADAPT has a supportive family-like environment where people have met their partners, made lifelong friendships and built community.

ADAPT was highly influenced by the civil rights movement and uses many of the same tactics, including sit-ins, marches and civil disobedience.

ADAPT has been primarily a single-issue organization, fighting for home and community services to allow people to live in the community and not in institutions, but the organization stays flexible when other issues like housing and transportation need to be addressed, especially at the local level.

Some local actions are coordinated nationally--one example is the yearly Freedom Day event on Martin Luther King's birthday. ADAPT has stayed true to its mission for 26 years and, because of this longevity, is now working hard to develop younger leadership.

ADAPT has had some organizational offshoots. Not Dead Yet, Feminist Response in Disability Activism (FRIDA) and Concrete Change were all started by ADAPT members. ADAPT has a strong committed base, and will be in the forefront of disability struggles for the foreseeable future.

We interviewed a disability activist who has written about ADAPT and the international disability movement. Jim Charlton, the author of Nothing About Us, Without Us, Disability Oppression and Empowerment, notes sadly that in his experience, the socialist countries, with the possible exceptions of Cuba and Nicaragua, have poor records on disability rights and have perpetrated institutional isolation and exclusion for people with disabilities as bad or worse than the capitalist countries.

Leftists need to incorporate the lessons of the disability rights movement, promote integration of disabled activists and understand the oppression people with disabilities face.

Further Reading

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