Washington D.C., 2007
Way back in the spring of aught-seven, on a lazy Saturday, after completing the three-week-long CNA class the previous day (back when the honorable Jim Nelson taught such a class “In-House” at the fantastically funky PASCO Harlan office) I was wheels-up heading for the nation’s capital, on my first “action” with ADAPT. ADAPT is a disability advocacy group, that employs non-violent civil disobedience to advance civil rights and improve the services of people with disabilities, patterned on the teachings of Martin Luther King and the black civil rights movement. I would be the attendant to the amazing (and now… sadly deceased) Larry Ruiz – one of the original “Gang of 19” – and as charismatic a guy as you’d ever hope to meet. A glint in Larry’s eye warned of mischief, while his smile charmed and put one immediately at ease. A fixture around the PASCO office, where he would joke, flirt, chat, laugh, and flirt, Larry had benefitted immensely from the early disability independence movement, and by 2007 was living life on his own terms… for it had not always been that way.
Larry had been institutionalized for much of his early life because he had Cerebral palsy, and was of the age when it was customary that those with CP, should neither be seen nor heard and instead warehoused away. ADAPT – Was meaningful to Larry, as he personally understood what it meant to be castigated aside (“for his own good” they said) and segregated away. He knew that life on the “outside” was challenging, confusing, but ultimately worth fighting for… and fighting he did… Larry boasted of being arrested with ADAPT over 70 times. He understood the costs and sacrifices that had to be made so that others wouldn’t languish and wilt in nursing homes.
With me as his (nervous, anxious, semi-confident) attendant, Larry and a large contingent from Denver (the ancestral birthplace of ADAPT) flew the three-plus hours to Reagan National Airport, where after another hour(s) spent in the retrieval of bags, wheelchairs, and necessities (that a weeklong stay consists of) there’s the long(ish) DC Metro ride to our spot… L’ Enfant Plaza station, and from there a short jaunt to our home base… the Capitol Hill Holiday Inn. We finally arrive… exhausted, sweaty, irritable. The logistics of getting from Point C to Point A having taken their toll on our collective nerves. However, there is no time for a quick nap, there will be no cherry blossom excursions, Smithsonian Air and Space…maybe some other time, because when those automatic doors open, we are greeted by a tremendous party.
Hundreds of activists (most in chairs, some blind, a few experiencing autism) had already descended into the city… they are all (to a person) clad in various ADAPT T-shirts and apparel. There was the Philly contingent. Chicago represented themselves well. Austin, Salt Lake City, Rochester, Milwaukee, Topeka, Atlanta, Memphis. The gentlemen with the homemade hats from Hawaii with his “Alohas” and Pacific cool. There was the guy from Connecticut, Clyde who used an old-school wooden communication device, who when seeing Larry, motioned with his chin to various letters on his well-worn board… “Y–O–U–A–R–E–A–explicit”. There was the Englishman with the guitar, who must have smoked at least 20,000 cigarettes, while continuously serenading people with songs of protest – exultations of wins, ballads of losses, mourning those lost in the struggle and celebrating the triumphs. There was “Spitfire” who would throw herself off her manual wheelchair at Capitol Hill police. The same Spitfire (I never learned her real name) who would eat hummus with a spoon and would seethe at the mere mention of being re-institutionalized. There were kids (some probably conceived at various ADAPT Actions) who would lead chants “Our Homes… Not Nursing Homes!!” “How do you spell power? A-DA-P-T!!” “The People United Will Never be Defeated!”
This was an amazing festival-like atmosphere… hundreds of oftentimes marginalized individuals, now finding their people and collective voice. There were long days of important work ahead; arrests, long marches, civil disobedience(s), McDonald’s hamburgers, meetings with legislators and aides, and while many of the advocates could have used the rest…the nights were spent living…independence indeed.
Washington D.C., 2022
And now 15 years later in 2022…I’m back to DC, with a much smaller group. Different state ADAPT groups have decided to focus on different disability issues. There is a new way to get from Point A to Point B…Uber. Administrations have come and gone. There has been some rancor with hostilities across the political divide…and Tik Tok. Fellow ADAPT people had since passed away; loyal foot soldiers, tactical leaders, and time had done a number on the ranks, yet new activists emerged; fresh-faced, indefatigable youngsters who had benefitted from the previous generations, and now wanted to do their part. Larry would be proud.
So, while in 2007 there were grand ADAPT processions to the Rayburn and Hart buildings complete with police escort… intersections blocked, “Important” people were temporarily inconvenienced so hundreds of people with significant needs could make unannounced visits to Rep. John Dingell’s (D-MI) and Rep. Joe Burton’s (R-TX) (amongst a few of the legislators called upon) offices to have them support The Community Choice Act (CCA) …in 2022 with no more than 20 of us (Rochester, Denver and another guy from Honolulu) we were spry, nimble and visited many offices; Mikie Sherill (D-NJ), Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Cindy Axne (D-IA) and countless others, all in the hopes they would resign on to The Latonya Reeves Freedom Act – an important piece of legislation which would strengthen civil rights for people wishing to live independently and would further improve home and community-based services in states where such services weren’t seen as a priority.
Civil rights…basic supports and structures, which had helped countless people live meaningful lives for many years—including those in Colorado where Medicaid programs and HCBS services, in particular, were better than most states in the union. Why should a person be forced to leave their family and friends and move across the country to find services – and why would those receiving said supports care? The stakes are too high, and just as easy as hard-fought legislation can be passed…things can quickly change, and a movement can be set back 50 years.
In 2017 the American Healthcare Act came close to passing and would have destroyed decades of progress had it not been for the watchdog vigilance of ADAPT. Thankfully, due to the hard work of ADAPT and the famous thumbs-down “no” vote of the now deceased Senator McCain, the bill did not pass. The bill would have capped the Medicaid dollars that fund home and community-based services that ADAPT had fought so hard to expand for people with disabilities. It would have been devastating and taken home and community-based services back decades. You can learn more about this critical fight here.
”Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.