Meet the disabled activists from Denver who changed a nation

The protesters held control of Sen. Cory Gardner’s Denver waiting room for 57 hours.

The roughly 8- by 12-foot room felt cramped. The building designers probably didn’t take into account a nine person sit-in that included five wheelchairs — or the supporters who sneaked onto the closed-off floor to bring food and medications.

The protest was organized by ADAPT, a national organization born in Colorado that has fought for the rights of people with disabilities since the 1970s. The group’s demand was simple: They would leave once Gardner vowed to vote no on the Senate health care bill.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 11 protesters were on the floor. The waiting room was giddy as the group updated those watching their livestream. The protesters were unaware that police were already en route, unaware that their cheerful banter would soon turn to fervid chants and that they wouldn’t reach hour 58.

Nine protesters were arrested in Gardner’s office that night. Another was taken into custody downstairs. All were charged with trespassing, while a couple also were tagged with additional charges of resisting arrest.

Carrie Ann Lucas was the last to be taken away. Her ventilator gave police pause, so they decided to send her to a hospital to be checked and released.

Police called a Regional Transportation District bus to move Lucas, who uses a wheelchair. As the bus pulled up, a lift dropped down so Lucas could be rolled on. The irony wasn’t missed. The wheelchair-accessible bus that carried Lucas away last week exists because of a similarly dramatic civil disobedience action held by the same group nearly 40 years ago.

Two disabled demonstrators sit between RTD buses near the intersection of Colfax Avenue and Broadway on July 5, 1978, in Denver. They were among more than 30 persons who barricaded two buses, demanding accessibility to transportation.
Shot heard around the world

In the early morning of Wednesday, July 5, 1978, protesters waited for an RTD bus. It rolled to a stop at Broadway and Colfax Avenue, one of the busiest intersections in the state. Within seconds, it was swarmed as people in wheelchairs blocked both front and back.

The group, then called Atlantis, had been talking to RTD for more than a year trying to get wheelchair lifts added to all buses. A new fleet had just been released, but none was accessible. People were angry.

Another bus pulled behind the first. Protesters surrounded it, too, locking both in place. Traffic stalled for miles. Police of increasing rank would come, demanding that the group disperse. But the protesters — known as the Gang of Nineteen — didn’t budge for two days. Not until RTD agreed to add lifts. It was the first public transit agency in the nation to do so.

“(Police) were beside themselves,” said Barry Rosenberg, one of the founders of ADAPT, who talked about the experience with a smile. He was a runner that day, watching from the sidewalk and bringing people supplies. “They didn’t know what to do. That was the start of something big for people with disabilities.”

The group had held actions before, but this was the first to garner national attention. It served as a turning point, with some calling it the shot heard around the world, Rosenberg said. People with disabilities were willing to get arrested for their rights.

At 6:37 p.m. Thursday, a protester received a text. Police had arrived downstairs. The group began to talk hurriedly, planning strategy for the next move.

Although tension was high, no one appeared afraid. Just an hour earlier, everyone had laughed when asked if they had been arrested.

“No one’s a rookie here,” one responded.

One ADAPT member joined in January and had already been arrested three times — now four. Arrests are almost like merit badges.

Bruce Darling, one of ADAPT’s national organizers, described the organization as akin to a volunteer army for the disabled community. The health care debate is stagnant because of the politeness of the discourse, he said. Holding loud demonstrations turns the needle.

“This is about life and liberty,” Darling said, referencing how many in the disabled community fear a cut to Medicaid will take away money that allows them to live independently. “This country wasn’t founded by a group of people who held a press conference and said the king was unjust.”

Some have criticized the group for their actions, saying they should protest legally. But ADAPT has a long track record of attention-getting, nonviolent civil disobedience that extends back to when the group was founded in Denver by the Rev. Wade Blank, a man who loved the drama of guerrilla theater.

George Roberts, left, and Les Hubbard bludgeon a curb in protest on July 1, 1980. Other members of the Atlantis Community Center surround them in a demonstration against an obstacle to their mobility.

People with disabilities used sledgehammers to break curbs in 1980, forcing Colorado to be the first state to install ramps on sidewalks. People in wheelchairs circled the annual American Public Transportation Association convention, forcing attendees to climb over them, which eventually led to a national standard for accessible buses. Protesters left their wheelchairs to crawl up the Capitol steps in Washington, influencing legislators to finally pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And as Denver saw last week, ADAPT has been holding sit-ins and die-ins in legislators’ offices across the nation, including Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office, hoping to persuade senators to vote no on the proposed health care bill.

It’s not that ADAPT doesn’t use other avenues. The organization lobbies, works with lawmakers and helps with policy. But often advocates won’t be able to go anywhere doing just that, Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition Executive Director Julie Reiskin said.

“I see ADAPT’s role kind of where it’s always been as the people who are willing to go to the mat when needed and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience when needed,” she said. “They’re really representing all of (the disabled community).”

Look at the health care bill, for example, she said. Despite the national attention it was getting, no one was talking about how people with disabilities would be affected. In Colorado, people with disabilities make up 7 percent of Medicaid participants but 27 percent of the program’s funding. Now it’s on the front page.

By federal law, Medicaid is required to fund nursing homes. Many in the disabled community have a tumultuous relationship with nursing homes, saying they take away individual freedoms. Many feel home- and community-based services that allow people to live independently will be bear the brunt of the cuts. Darling said people are afraid they will be dragged into homes.

Reiskin said many members of her organization can’t participate in drastic protests. But many, ranging from liberals to conservatives, have written her to say they’re glad ADAPT is taking a stand for them.

“It’s times like this that make people realize there are things that have to be done that aren’t very comfortable,” she said. “People are so grateful that people are willing to do this.”

The minister who looked like John Lennon

Mollie Brainard pointed to a photo of the Rev. Wade Blank in a newspaper clipping during a tour of the Atlantis Community Center.

“I think he kind of looks like John Lennon,” she said.

The walls of the center are covered with newspaper articles, separated by years, cities and significant national events. Brainard, an administrative assistant there, said she has been at the center for 14 years and still hasn’t read them all.

In the early 1970s, Blank began working as the recreation director for the youth wing at the Heritage House, a nursing home in Denver. He had a reputation of stirring up trouble, Brainard explained.

The Rev. Wade Blank, left, talks to Wendy Thompson and her husband Larry on Nov. 1, 1981.

It started small. He let patients choose which color of shirt they wore. Then residents asked to have pizza delivered. Young people wanted portable cassette players so they didn’t have to listen to the same music as their 70-year-old roommates. And as people with disabilities gained more and more freedom, they began to push back against nurses, not wanting to take behavioral medicine.

When the Grateful Dead came into town, Blank took the youth to the concert. When he returned to Heritage House, his desk had been packed.

While still working at the home, Blank became close with the young residents, including Michael Smith, a teen with muscular dystrophy who couldn’t leave his bed.

Smith had been put in a nursing home when he was 11. He didn’t have a long life expectancy. Smith made Blank promise that he wouldn’t die there.

Blank returned to Heritage House soon after he was fired. The moment he stepped inside, he was told to leave. He just needed to talk quickly with Smith, he said. When Blank left the nursing home, he wheeled Smith out the door with him, taking the hospital bed and ventilator, too.

Blank found Smith a garden-level apartment. He hired a friend who was a certified nursing assistant to be Smith’s attendant for $20 a week. It was the first time someone had made a nursing home transition. In fact, it was the first time the idea of home-based services was even conceived, Brainard said.

Blank eventually moved more people from the youth wing into their own apartments. During that time, he created the Atlantis Community Center, and ADAPT grew from that.

Brainard finished the story. She pointed to a picture of Smith in his own apartment. He looked happy.

Life and liberty

With his feet still planted in the hallway, Gardner’s state director leaned into the room to read off a piece of paper. Building management had informed Gardner’s office that they were in violation of their lease by allowing the protesters to stay. Everyone needed to leave, and Denver police had been called to assist.

Protesters had been waiting 57 hours for this moment. They lay on the ground to make removal more complicated while chanting “Rather go to jail than to die without Medicaid.” The sound consumed the room. A police officer used a bullhorn to warn protesters that they needed to leave or face arrest.

They continued chanting. One by one, police offered a protester the chance to leave before arresting them. Some held onto wheelchairs with death grips. Others simply refused to tell officers how to operate their chairs.

Robin Stephens, Dawn Russell, Karyn Heffernan, Dawn Howard, Lonnie Smith, Lucas, Caryn Sodaro, Jacqueline Mitchell and Hope Moseley were arrested on charges of trespassing. Jordan Sibayan was arrested while protesting downstairs.

“People are a little surprised. They’re surprised by the reaction of disabled protesters. Part of the issue is the level of threat,” Bruce Darling said. “When Americans’ life and liberty are threatened, they take it really personally.”

Lonnie Smith gets arrested on June 29 by Denver Police officers after refusing the vacate the Denver office of U.S. Senator Cory Gardner.

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