The ADA, the Long Road to Disability Discrimination Protection

a Denver RTD bus drives toward a rainy intersection
The long road to the ADA started in Denver in 1978 with 19 protestors gathered in front of two city buses, causing a 24-hour long traffic jam. / Photo by Talin Unruh on Unsplash.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which gave people with disabilities protection from discrimination, was signed into law in July 1990. But the long road to that landmark legislation started in Denver in 1978 with 19 protestors peacefully gathered in front of two city buses, causing a 24-hour long traffic jam. 

“Their actions would make Denver the first city in the United States to have a fully wheelchair-accessible public transit system; it would culminate in the Capitol Crawl in Washington, D.C., and eventually, with the passage of one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation of all time, the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said co-host Noel Black in a March 2020 episode of Lost Highways

The Golden Transcript in July 1978 published reporting from the Associated Press on the protest. The AP reported a dozen protestors stopped two RTD buses by lining up their wheelchairs in front of and behind the buses. “The people in wheelchairs were part of a contingent of 35 to 40 handicapped persons protesting what they called footdragging on the part of the RTD in providing increased services for the handicapped,” the AP reported. 

The AP went on to note then-Denver Police Lt. John Goff told the outlet two people were arrested at the scene. The protest “started at the end of the morning rush hour on East Colfax Avenue in the block east of Broadway,” according to the AP. 

“They used their bodies to block several buses and caused a 24-hour traffic jam at the corner of Colfax and Broadway in downtown Denver,” said Black. “All in the hopes that someday it might be easier for them and other people with disabilities to get around the city they called home.”

According to the AP, “[t]he protest was organized by residents of the Atlantis Community, a Denver residence for the handicapped.” 

Lost Highways’ co-host Tyler Hill explained that many persons with physical disabilities “were stranded in nursing homes or various other institutions that kept them separate from the public, which made [the protest] difficult to organize.”

NPR reporter Joe Shapiro noted in the March 2020 Lost Highways episode that people with all kinds of disabilities were often institutionalized. “You didn’t have a choice of who you lived with, you didn’t have a future,” he said. “You weren’t going to go to school, you weren’t going to get a job. You were going to be treated like somebody who was expected to die.”

Shapiro noted the goal of the activists in the early disability movement was to get the same level of access as everyone else. As the institutions that held persons with disabilities started closing their doors, Hill noted transportation and independent living were at the forefront of the disability rights movement. But a lot of public transportation just wasn’t accessible. 

“We have got to have transportation at any time, when we need it, the same as anybody else,” one of the protesters said to the AP.

The group of disability activists who gathered that day became known as the Gang of 19. They chanted “We will ride!” until the city and RTD agreed to add lifts, making the buses wheelchair accessible.

CPR News in December 2018 reported “​​RTD would become the first public transit district in the country to add wheelchair lifts to buses. The group expanded to become ADAPT, and went on to demonstrate in front of the White House and all across the country.” 

The group’s March 1990 demonstration in front of the White House, also known as the Capitol Crawl, led to the passage of the ADA just four months later. At that demonstration, ADAPT protestors abandoned mobility aids and crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

The Gang of 19 included Linda Chism-Andre, Renate Rabe-Conrad, Bob Conrad, Willy Cornelison, Mary Ann Sisneros, Carolyn Finnell, George Roberts, Mel Conrardy, Bobby Simpson, Debbie Tracy, Jeannie Joyce, Kerry Schott, Jim Lundvall, Lori Heezen, Glenn Kopp, Larry Ruiz, Cindy Dunn, Paul Brady and Terri Fowler.

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