Chapter Four – Developing Winning Strategies

When I started learning about organizing Trapp was always saying things like “You can’t have change without conflict.  That is a fact of life.”  To my green little ears it sounded harsh and needlessly confrontational; but as usual, I found he was right.  The more I began to question how things were, the more true it seemed to me.  I found that conflicts were already there; perhaps bubbling under the surface, but they were there.  The main thing that kept the situation from becoming more heated was my willingness to accept the status quo (the way things were).  Sometimes I didn’t even realize I was doing it.  I realized that while most people had privacy in public restrooms, other people including me (if we were lucky enough to get in without having to crawl across the floor) often put up with people who looked in the stall, since the door could not close with the wheelchair in the way.  While I sometimes thought “take a picture, it lasts longer” I acted like I didn’t care.  But we couldn’t look in their stalls, not that I especially wanted to, but still.  After a while I kind of didn’t care.  Back in the day, that just how it was.


I am a big believer in picking your battles.  It goes along with the idea of focusing your attention to solve an issue.  But picking your battles does not mean never picking a battle.  Some battles are worth picking.  Some things are worth taking on and some problems are worth solving.  It’s up to you and your group to decide which is which for you.


Conflict is often seen as bad, but is that really so?  When we take a stand we actually expose conflict that already exists.  There are problems in this world that are ignored or invisible to those in power. Those in power, for the most part, want to maintain the status quo – a situation or system which they control.  Those who are being harmed by things as they are may not like it, but as long as they remain quiet and don’t make waves the current situation will remain, and they will continue to be harmed.  The problem is there but unrecognized or ignored by the decision makers.  It’s our job to change that situation.


Mike Auberger lies in the Greyhound luggage compartment, his wheelchair beside him, to illustrate the unequal treatment.

 Mike Auberger lies in the cargo compartment of the bus to illustrate the unequal treatment by the bus lines.  Photo: Tom Olin


What’s Wrong With this Picture?

Sometimes however, we have to expose the conflict to ourselves before we can expose it to others.  I will never forget when the ADA was being debated in Congress and the issue of curb cuts and sidewalks came up.  I was thinking about curb cuts and how many were needed and where.  Almost like a light bulb going off I realized that I thought of the city I had lived in for over five years as a series of routes, like an animal might.  Along these routes here and there (spread pretty sparsely I might add), were points representing businesses I could enter – like a raccoon knowing which garbage pails have loose lids, or a stray cat knowing which houses have porches to shelter under.  I was pretty sure most people didn’t think of my city like that.  I had friends who had been locked away for decades because that was acceptable to their families, even encouraged by professionals and social traditions, and in some cases these people were basically discarded because of their disability.  Some had been sterilized by their families for fear they might reproduce.  Our society had little problem with any of this it seemed, at least not for my friends and thousands of other people like them.  These were not harms I or my friends created.  These were problems with society.  I began to understand I was in effect cooperating by not questioning or speaking out.


Who Made this Mess Anyway?

You might be concerned that if you stop cooperating people will think you are a trouble maker. They might, but did you tell the paraplegic Lane to crawl up the stairs to appear in that Tennessee courtroom?[1]  Did you ask your doctor to examine you on the floor, or worse yet neglect to examine you at all, because he or she couldn’t be bothered to get an accessible exam table?  Did you tell your state to pay triple for services in institutions for seniors and people with disabilities and under-fund community services?  Say to HUD and your city and state housing agencies, hey let’s cut housing vouchers for the lowest income folks because some banks and other financial agencies lured people into buying homes they could not afford?  Did you tell deaf students and students with Autism they could not use their hands when communicating?


No you did not.  These are not troubles that you or I made.  But we can bring these troubles, these issues to people’s attention.  We make a choice, and sometimes that choice is to stop cooperating.  Pick your battles?  Sure, but pick some.


Troublemaker, rabble-rouser, AGITATOR.  Those are all things folks call people who stir things up.  Well what is an agitator?  As Trapp pointed out once: without the agitator a washing machine is just a big metal box with a bunch of water, some soap and some stinky laundry that is going to rot if something doesn’t happen.  It takes the agitator to make it all happen, to stir things up and make the clothes clean.


Barbara Bounds gives the power sign as she is arrested at protest for passage of the ADA.

Barbara Bounds and Deborah Cunningham continue to show their anger and frustration during their arrest at the last protest for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA.  Discrimination against people with disabilities was common but many people with disabilities realized this was not acceptable to them any more.  ADAPT held many protests to demonstrate the need and desire for change.  Photo: Tom Olin


Speak Truth to Power 

I think of addressing these conflicts like lancing a boil.  There is a lot of infection festering inside and the longer it is ignored, the more tissue around it is affected, causing swelling, soreness, and spread of the infection.  Until you get rid of all that pus you can’t really clean things up and start the healing process.  It’s yucky and smelly, but it’s the beginning of a cure.  Even if you think this medical approach is a bit outdated, you get my meaning.


Another way I think of this is in terms of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Two travelling tailors came to an emperor’s court and offered to make the emperor a fabulous new suit of clothes from fabric never seen before in the empire, fabric that came from far, far away.  Actually, the tailors had no cloth and no sewing talent, but a BIG talent for drama!  Dazzled by the talk of the tailors, the emperor commissioned the clothes be made.  The tailors went into a huge and elaborate drama of measuring the emperor, setting up a workshop, etc.  Meanwhile they were honored guests of the court and were wined and dined.  Every day the tailors would pretend to do some work on the suit, fitting the emperor from time to time.  Because he was emperor and he believed the tailors, everyone else in the court didn’t want to seem out of step with him and just went along to get along.  Finally the big day arrived and the suit was done.  The emperor took his “new suit” on parade for all the see and envy.  No one wanted to say “hey the emperor’s naked” till a little boy simply blurted out “the emperor has no clothes!”  Did that create a scene?  Sure, but only then did the emperor cover himself up, the tailors got thrown out and order got restored.


However, in this life, change is rarely that simple.  Usually it takes a little more push.  Usually you need a plan to tackle a Goliath.  That plan is called your strategy.

“I’m Walking Here”[2]

More often than not, your strategy must beef up tension from your side to reach balance of power for the show down.  If the enemy is really powerful, or dumb, or big, they may ignore you and your issues, and you have to force them to pay attention.  If they don’t pay attention or deal with the issue because they don’t care, we must make them care – if not about solving the problem then about getting us to leave them alone.  The purpose of the conflict is to bring about a new situation, a resolution.  We want to shift the balance of power between the enemy and ourselves to the point where our enemies will take us seriously and begin to negotiate, not necessarily because they want to, but sometimes simply so the conflict will cease.  By changing the balance of power you are forcing the enemy to deal with you – and on a more equal playing field.  No one wants to get squished.


We can be liked and not get what we want, or be respected by demanding what we need.  I sometimes say the disability community is a like a cheap date.  Invite us to a wine and cheese party, ask us to testify, put us on an advisory committee and we are happy.  But all too often once this happens, that is it.  Nothing goes any further.  No change is made.  We get an uneasy feeling that things haven’t gone far enough but we are not sure what went wrong.  My partner, a quad, and I both noticed when we were in rehab (separate places and times) that the patients who never complained were the darlings of the rehab staff.  The folks who raised cain to get their beds changed quickly when they pissed in them might not have been so adored, but they didn’t have to lie around smelling that smell and getting sores from the urine.  Staff might have bitched about these folks but they changed the beds.


Components of Success 

Strategies that work have several components that help them be successful.

Your goal with a strategy, as with your organizing generally, is twofold.  You want to win a victory, to make a change for the better in your community, to fix the problem.  At the same time though you have another goal: to empower your people.  As organizers, we want to change for the better our internal situation, so  people we work with know their own worth and strength.  This will create a community that does not put up with things, does not tolerate the intolerable and expects to be treated in reasonable, positive ways – not treated like trash or an afterthought.


Getting and Keeping Your Group Involved

A good strategy should engage your people.  Just as you want the opposition to feel uncomfortable and wanting to make change, you want your folks to feel comfortable and involved, understanding why you all are doing what you are doing and how you are doing it.  You want to think of things that involve folks hands-on in making the solution.  Watching you write brilliant testimony for the city council public hearing may seem fun to you, but for others this probably has the appeal of watching paint dry.  Much better would be to all come up with snappy lines to put on the poster board everyone will be holding during the hearing.  Even better?  Make a pizza party while you make those posters.


You want your strategy to be logical and acceptable to your people, to make sense to them.  Coming up with the plan together is a good way to make this happen.  Brainstorming ways to tackle a problem may bring up some odd plans but you are much more likely to get consensus on what you are doing. Sometimes a weird idea leads to a better plan. Getting something that everyone supports can be a little tricky, different people can have different attitudes about a situation.  I remember years ago when the ADA had just passed ADAPT folks in Austin were trying to get a local events hall to put in a ramp, after they had removed an old one during some renovations.  Some in our group, who had blocked buses and been in the streets for years, were ready for bear.  They wanted to take over the management’s office.  Others felt that the ADA was brand new and people didn’t know what was in it and should be given a lot of warning.  They wanted to write several letters and then maybe try and set up a meeting, to take it slow. The fire-eating crowd pointed out the place had become LESS accessible with the renovations; things had moved in the wrong direction.  Everyone was frustrated with the lack of access and slow response of the management, but not everyone wanted to give them another chance, nor did everyone want to take over the office.  We went around and around and finally it was agreed we would write a letter, but it would be a giant four foot tall letter which we would nail on the front door.  Everyone liked the theater of it, and some folks could write the words of the letter, others could create the poster-letter, others could make signs for us to carry and others would get the hammer, nails and other tools we would need.  On the appointed day we rolled over to the hall and unfurled the letter.  When the management declined to come out to meet us we read it out loud so passers-by could hear our concerns.  We were about to nail it to the door when the owner, who just happened to be arriving as we started to read the letter, stepped forward, identified himself and offered to take the letter inside.  Needless to say, the management (who had kept the whole issue quiet) was totally embarrassed and the owner agreed to put in a ramp within the next two weeks.  Two weeks later we cracked a bottle of Champagne on the new ramp and celebrated access with the owner.


Off Balance

Another important aim for your strategy is to be outside the experience of the enemy.  You want to do things your group is comfortable with, but the other side is not used to at all.  Once ADAPT of Texas was negotiating with the Mayor about putting curb cuts in the downtown and we went to meet with him in his office.  A member of our group who was blind, Frank Lozano, was visiting from out of town and wanted to join us for the meeting so we said sure!  We were ushered into the fancy office, with its thick carpets, stately wooden walls and bookcases, and plush seating (the kind one worries about staining with sticky dirty fingers).  There sat the Mayor behind his big desk acting kindly but ready to blow us off.  We started into our talking points and Frank, who had no seat, began sidling around the edges of the room lightly touching the walls and little tippy tables with their fancy whatnots on them as he moved around. One of our members rolled his motorized wheelchair in front of the door (it was crowded in there).  The Mayor could not stop watching Frank as he moved around the room, and asked Frank if he was alright. Frank assured him that he was just fine.  You could see the Mayor tense up as Frank would reach some little knick knack or other.  Then Frank got to the wall that went behind the Mayor and his desk – which had become his protection from this group of freaks.  As Frank passed behind him the hairs on the Mayor’s neck rose and we could tell we were getting all the curb cuts we needed downtown.  Now Frank is one of the most careful people I know and he would never have broken one thing, but the Mayor didn’t know that and he didn’t know how he was getting out of that room with the wheelchair in front of the door and that tipped the balance of power in the room just enough to win the day!


Taking on a Governor

Another time ADAPT was fighting for the state of Texas to start putting an emphasis on community based services and stop pouring all their money and energy into institutional support services.  We had testified and rallied till we were blue in the face but we had hit a brick wall as far as the state was concerned.  It seemed even the “friendly” legislators were glad handing us and patting us on the head as they prepared to back down and do nothing.  To show the strength of our commitment and our demand for support we decided we needed to occupy the office of then Governor Richards until she agreed to actively support us.  We did not know how long this would take so we wanted to be prepared.  We could think of no way to get the supplies we needed in secretly so we decided we were outside the experience of the opposition and often the best place to hide things is in plain sight.  We strapped bedrolls and even a potty chair to our wheelchairs and just rolled into the Capitol.  We took the elevator up to the second floor and the guards held the doors open as we got on and off the elevators; loaded down as we were it was very helpful.  We rolled into the Governor’s office, presented our demands and unpacked.  It was clear we meant to stay.  Governor Richards was out of town, but even though this was before the time of cell phones, her staff and security managed to get her on the telephone and she agreed to meet with a delegation of our people the next day.  Of course we said we had to stay in the office until the meeting, and she agreed.  Seeing we were prepared with our potty chair (sometimes they let you leave to go to the restroom but then won’t let you back inside) the state troopers agreed we could have free passage to and from the public restrooms, as long as we did not use the potty chair in the office.  We spent the night.  The meeting the next day eventually resulted in the largest community based program for people with significant disabilities in our state, and a process that lead to the closure of the only two state institutions for people with developmental disabilities that the state has closed to date. Those of us who were there will never forget our sleep over in the Governor’s Office.


Protesters sleeping on the floor of the Texas Governor's office.

People who had never come to an ADAPT protest joined our overnight occupation of Governor Richards’ office.  We wanted State Schools closed and community services as an alternative to nursing homes and other institutions.  Photo: ADAPT of Texas

In both these cases, we had logical arguments, statistics and law on our side.  But that was getting us nowhere fast.  It was our unusual tactics and strategy that led to action and positive change.  These strategies were acceptable to our group (and even attracted some new people who had never been involved before but cared deeply about the issues.)  Acceptable to us yes, but also outside the enemy’s experience and that played into our favor.  It made them look at the situation in a new light.


Aim Where They Are Vulnerable 

You want to attack the weakest point of the opposition.  That can be taken literally, as in National ADAPT’s early strategy of tying up the drive-through window at inaccessible McDonalds during the lunch hour rush, either by rolling through and ordering and paying with change, or escalating to completely blocking the drive-through when the McDonalds clowns would not make their businesses accessible.  On the other hand it can also be a more symbolic weak point, as in Denver ADAPT’s protesting the Denver Archdiocese for lack of access just before the Pope’s visit to Denver by hanging a wheelchair on a cross in front of their building.  Using a similar moral weak point, Texas ADAPT drove home their point that Texas should support the disability community in the arguments in the landmark Olmstead [3] Supreme Court case.  We targeted then Governor Bush, as the head of our state, and went to the sidewalks outside his church and flyered the Congregation as they came and went from the Sunday service.  Not only did we challenge the Governor to consider the moral aspects of the situation but we were able to educate many other movers and shakers in the community who also attended this fancy church, government leaders who perhaps found going to church with the Governor a positive career move.  Although Texas remained on the wrong side of that case, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the disability community. And, when Bush was elected President, he (with some continued encouragement from ADAPT) took steps to implement the decision.


Attracting other power bases to your side is another goal for your strategy.  Remember about the types of power discussed earlier?  Well think of things to do that will bring other sources of power to your side and get other people to support your cause.  When Denver ADAPT was pushing their Archdiocese to become accessible they were greatly assisted by a local carpenters union (ironically) offering to build the ramp for the Archdiocese for only the cost of the materials needed.  With such a combo, it was impossible for the Archdiocese to say no, even though, for months before they had been refusing to comply.  When national ADAPT was protesting the conference of the American Health Care Association (the cutely named nursing home lobby group) at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, we were able to get several country music stars including the Oakridge Boys, to do a press conference with us on the need for community alternatives to nursing homes.  The hotel management made that happen because they were afraid we would protest the Country Music Awards starting that evening and they had become disgusted with AHCA when AHCA blew off a meeting with us that the hotel had brokered.


Changing Things Up 

You want to vary your strategy, so your enemy doesn’t adjust to it.  There was a group in the Boston area who protested an inaccessible movie theater for seven years, every Friday night.  While the dedication of the group can be admired – the theater quickly realized this was going to happen on Fridays, and responded accordingly without providing the desired access.  In Atlanta, national ADAPT took over the lobby of the AHCA hotel by hitting it at midnight, something we had never done before.  Neither the hotel nor AHCA were on guard at that hour, though plenty of AHCA members were up partying in the lobby bar at that time.[4]  In San Antonio, during the bus years, ADAPT knew we would be blocked if we tried to go block buses en mass, so we tried another way — splitting up into pairs and trios and blocking buses all over the downtown tourist area.  We won a meeting with then Mayor Cisneros within about an hour.


Have Fun 

Plan your strategy to be fun for your folks.  Fun is good.  Life is too short.  ADAPT of Texas has done this many times by using theater.  When we went to testify to our (then named) Department of Human Services Board of Directors we let everyone who wanted to speak testify (we are the experts after all) and we spiced things up too.  At one time we discovered that a penny reduction in the nursing home rate would result in a million dollars of funding that could go to community services, so as we testified to the Board we tossed hundreds of pennies at the Board sitting up on their dais.  Another time the Board was debating freezing people’s services because of funding issues.  We took little plastic people (cowboys and army men) and stuck them in ice trays with water so they became part of the cubes.  When we went to testify we dressed for midwinter – though it was a typical Texas summer day – and we put the ice cube people on the table where they dripped away as we talked about why they should not freeze people’s services.  Another time one of our members came to us because he was being discriminated against at his local bar; they would only serve him one beer and would not allow him on the dance floor.  There was no argument from our crowd when someone suggested we go to the bar, order multiple beers and get out on the floor and boogie (or actually two step, since it was a country western bar).  When 15 or so of us showed up, they just served us beers like all the other customers who all danced with us on the dance floor and ever after that guy had no problems with the bar management.


Show the Foolishness of your Enemy

Kind of along the lines of hitting the enemy’s weak spot is the idea that your strategy should embarrass the enemy, make them look foolish.  Several years after passage of the ADA, Austin’s party district – Sixth Street, still had many locations that were not accessible.  So, on the anniversary of the signing of the ADA July 26 we went down the street flyering about the issue and crawling up the front steps into several inaccessible restaurants to demonstrate how we had to get in if there was no accessible entrance.  Most fixed their access issues within a week or so; one did it by that very night.  In another Texas campaign for more community services we learned the profits of the biggest nursing home chains and published a flyer with the ten most profitable (over $1 million per year in our state alone) chains listed and the amount of their profit for the last year. We then distributed these to the legislature.  The Texas Health Care Association, THCA, was furious and sent us a letter threatening to sue the pants off of us.  Instead of turning tail and running for cover, we started faxing THCA’s letter far and wide, to other non-profit groups, state agencies, the media and the legislators themselves.  THCA’s threat was dead within an hour and a half.


In the end, the enemy, the opposition, determines the level of conflict – believe it or not. We are not engaging in conflict for conflict’s sake.  We want to see changes, and the purpose of our strategies is to get the opposition to negotiate with us.  We want to get to the negotiation table to hammer out a solution.  As soon as the opposition agrees to negotiate, and as long as they do so in good faith and not just lip service, we are ready to negotiate and the actions stop – unless or until the negotiations break down.


Larger, more complex issues will usually take longer but the same concepts apply.  Plan you strategy out in chunks; make a three-month battle plan.  As you get close to the end reassess and make another.  A classic business book, In Search of Excellence[5] , suggests a model we lived by “do it, fix it.” In other words nothing is perfect so do your best but do something and if you need to adjust and keep on going.  My partner loves to quote the expression, “do something, even if it’s wrong.”  Newton’s first law of physics begins “A body in motion tends to stay in motion.”  Basically the idea is that you get more done by keeping the ball rolling than by getting all the i”s dotted and “t”s crossed before you start.  Woody Allen said “80% of success is just showing up” and when you have a group of committed folks with disabilities occupying an office you will see just how true this statement can be.


Bite Sized Pieces

For all the importance of keeping the ball rolling, it must also be said that trudging on for three months following your plan to only look at another three months can be very disempowering, so how to you deal with that?  One idea ADAPT commonly uses is breaking the big thing into bite-sized pieces.  We looked for the components that built up the big thing.  An example of that would be when Austin ADAPT was trying to get our city bus system to commit to full accessibility: We would talk about a total commitment, but we would put real pressure on only for the next purchase of buses.  Each purchase would contain perhaps 20 to 80 buses, or trolleys, and in a couple of years the majority of the system WAS lift equipped.  The transit people saw it was not so horrible, in fact it saved them about $23 per trip by a wheelchair user and they turned from being major skeptics to not only committing to access but becoming spokespeople for the idea.  ADAPT treated each purchase like it would determine the end of the world and we hammered away at it using all the passion and creativity and smarts we could throw at it.  When the transit authority bought accessible buses, we celebrated and talked it up and praised them to high heaven.  The first time we even brought a boom box with music and a bottle of Champagne, which we shared with everyone in the boardroom once the board voted the right way – FOR ACCESS and integration.  Had they voted no, we had planned to shut down the meeting.


Another way to keep folks engaged on these longer more complicated campaigns is to intersperse smaller issues and actions[6] amid your bigger campaign.  Fighting to end the institutional bias in Medicaid long term care has been a lengthy battle, to say the least.  To keep folks engaged we have promoted local groups do one step restaurant actions, and other smaller local issues.  Sometimes these have themselves drawn out longer than expected, but they give variety and victories along the way, and that is the point. 


Make Your Own Opportunities 

Sometimes we have grabbed an event, such as the President or a relevant national conference coming to town, and made that a big deal action with the point being simply to get the word out and the issue covered.  We used the Supreme Court Olmstead case (mentioned earlier) as a mini-campaign to get states to support our side.  During the time the Court had taken up this case, Florida’s Attorney General wrote a “friend of the court” brief supporting Georgia not having to make any changes, and against the women having the right to live in the community.  Florida tried to get other states to sign on in support of their brief.  So, we went on the offensive and started our own campaign to get states to not sign on; or if they already had, to take their state’s name off the brief.  The actual who-was-on, who-was-off has little influence on the court, or so say the experts.  We didn’t care.  As groups, first ADAPT groups but soon many, many others, went to work on their Governors, Attorneys General, heads of human services and other honchos in charge of this stuff.  The leadership in state after state became educated on the positives of community services, the disability community’s strong and unified stance on this issue, and the Americans with Disabilities Act’s goal of integration and independence.  Out of 26 states which originally signed on against the disability community, all but 7 changed their minds.  And every state in the union got an education on the disability community’s views and on the possibilities they were much less aware of – for the most part – before the campaign.

Money Follows the Person is another example of this.  Using the Supreme Court’s ruling  in the Olmstead case, Texas adopted a program to allow people to move out of nursing homes using the funds that paid for their services in the nursing home to follow them to the community (calling it Money Follows the Person).  This was not out of the goodness of their hearts, though it is sometimes remembered that way now.  It was won through a hard pressed campaign by ADAPT of Texas.  Then, National ADAPT used the 2000 presidential campaign to bump the issue up to the national level until it became a pilot program under the Bush Administration.  Each ADAPT group, and other disability groups, could then fight for their state to apply and implement the program.


Your strategies are your routes to your goal.  They can be changed, they can be combined, but without a group plan it’s hard to get where you want to go.  Have fun with them, and re-evaluate them together every few months as needed.  But keep at it and you will keep moving forward.



[1]Tennessee v. Lane et al –  Supreme Court case in which court found that the State of Tennessee had discriminated again George Lane and Beverly Jones by not make their courts accessible to persons in wheelchairs and requiring Lane to crawl to a second floor courtroom, and Jones, a court reporter to miss work opportunities because of lack of access.


[2] Ratso Rizzo, a character who is kind of a street person, in the movie “Midnight Cowboy” is crossing a busy New York street and a car comes edging up toward him.  Ratso slams his fist on the hood and shouts “I’m walking here!” The car stops and Ratso finishes crossing.

[3] Also known as the Olmstead decision, and by some as the Lois (LC) and Elaine (EW) decision.


[4] A couple of them tried to drop their drink glasses on our heads from the second floor bar.

[5] Peters, Tom and Waterman, Jr., Robert H. (1982). In Search of Excellence. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

[6] In ADAPT we call protests and similar events “actions.”  They range from pickets, to guerrilla theater, to civil disobedience, but we usually do actions in a group and involve some kind of confronting of authority.

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