Chapter Five – Demands

Since the point of direct action and community organizing is to make change, you need to be able to say what you want.  Why are you doing this action[1]?  What are your goals for the action?  These are called your demands.


Karen Greebon, smiling, lies on the ground holding sign that reads "Stop Inhuman Services"

Karen Greebon was locked away in a nursing home for over 12 years and had to fight to get out.  No one was more passionate to FREE OUR PEOPLE from nursing homes and other institutions.

Photo: ADAPT of Texas

Time and again I have seen people start to plan an action and yet they don’t have a statement of their demands.  How can you expect someone to do what you want if you don’t tell them what that is?  Demands are simply a statement of what you want.


Put It On Paper

Writing down the demands forces you to put into words, as clearly as possible, what you want to get out of this encounter.  Put it on paper.  It doesn’t need to be fancy.  Over the years we have had demand statements ranging from formal resolutions with the “whereas, whereas, whereas… therefore be it resolved,” to the much more common: a list of bullet points on a regular piece of paper.  Once or twice we have even resorted to handwriting on a napkin.  But get it down (so you can read it) on a piece of paper. When you get into negotiations with the person who can give you what you want the demand statement can serve as an agenda.  It can also serve to educate your own folks about what your group wants.


Be Specific

The demands should be specific.  The first action we ever did in Austin was at a 24 hour deli, Katz’s, which was not accessible to people in wheelchairs.  We demanded a ramp at the front door and accessible bathrooms.  When we were targeting the nursing home lobby group the American Health Care Association, AHCA, National ADAPT would sometimes demand a meeting with AHCA’sexecutive director and president, or that they pass a resolution (written by us) at their annual meeting supporting our legislation.


Along these same lines:  100 people out of institutions, a permanent ramp at the front door, Braille menus that are updated when the print menus are updated, sign language interpreters at all the parent teachers conferences with deaf parents.  That way it is clear if they are meeting your demands, or not coming close.  If you don’t specify a number they might say, “we got three people out, isn’t that great?” –technically they did get people out.  Or “we stuck a piece of dry wall on the step so there is your ramp” – and it breaks the first time you use it.  Or the menus are 2 years out of date and the prices and menu items are totally wrong – but they have Braille menus.  Or, sign language interpreters were at the first parents meeting only – they had, ‘em, back when John was 6 and now he’s 16. 


Group Agreement Needed

The demands, like the issue and strategy, must be understandable and agreed to by your group; preferably, you want to develop it with the group or at MINIMUM with the leadership team.  Let’s say you want a certain restaurant owner to make the restaurant accessible by providing a ramp, is the group OK with having it on an unlocked side door versus the front door? 


But So Is Flex Room

It is important to have stated positions and fall back positions.  What the heck are those?  Well, stated positions are your starting point, what you tell the enemy or opposition, while fall back positions are what you will settle for.  More on this in the negotiations chapter, but for now let’s just say you might ask for 100 free lunches at the Ritz but really you are willing to settle for 20 pizzas out in the park.  You don’t tell the opposition about the pizzas at first or that is all you will get.  Your demands should state lunch at the Ritz, but your people will understand you are all ok with something a bit smaller scale and your negotiators will know not to go so far as to accept baloney sandwiches in jail.


Avoid the Gatekeepers, Go to the Power

There are people whose job it is to deflect people like us and keep us away from the real decision makers.  Target the demand statement to the person who can give you what you want.  Very often, the opposition will send out someone who has little to no power, someone who does not have the authority to do what you want.  Examples would be the Mayor sending out the head of the Mayor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, a restaurant owner sending out a shift manager, or a company sending out their public relations (PR) person.  These people do not have the authority to make the changes you want; usually they don’t even have the power to agree to do what you want.  So don’t waste time with them.  Your demands should address the person or person who can agree and commit to do what you want done.


3 to 5

You should limit yourself to three to five demands.  Too many and you don’t get through them all, you get lost in the weeds and most of the time the opposition can avoid the most important ones simply by focusing on smaller or less important parts of what you are demanding.



Demands should have timelines.  If there is never a date things must be done by, they can always say they are “working on it” or “it’s coming.”  Well so is Christmas, and the end of the world, but you may not be around by the time they finally arrive.  A date by which things must be completed gives you the ability to know if it is done or not.  When our groups were making demands about buses we would find out when the transit authority was making their next purchase of buses and demand the transit authority only buy lift-equipped buses in that next purchase.  When we were focusing on freeing our people from nursing homes and other institutions, we would say we want the state to get x number of people out within next 365 days.


Yes or No

Last but not least you want to state your demands so that the opposition, the power, must answer “yes we will”, or “no we won’t.”  Maybe should not be an option, because maybe is usually the polite way of saying no.  A no that is said as a no is a good tool for organizing a response, but a wishy washy answer will not be as useful.  If they refuse to say yes, simply state that y’all are going to have to take that as a NO!


Every action should have a set of demands.


Ron Cranston and other protesters around a huge sign reading "Tune Out Jerry" at an MDA Telethon protest in Austin TX

 Ron Cranston and others  braved the Austin summer  heat to join others around  the nation protesting  MDA’s annual “Pity Party”  telethon and its icon, Jerry  Lewis, who said people

 with disabilities were only  half people.

  Photo: ADAPT of TX







[1] As mentioned in the Strategy chapter “action” is ADAPT’s term for protest type activities.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email