This website and training manual grow from my 30 years organizing in ADAPT, as well as from trainings I did with other folks trying to recruit people and enhance their skills at developing effective local ADAPT groups.
In 1985 I drove up to a convent in San Antonio, TX to join a group of about 40 people I had been hearing about for over two years. They were staying at a retreat section of the convent because funds were tight and it was not too expensive. A small group of guys were standing around out in front, a couple were in power chairs, one was using a vent and they were all smoking. They welcomed me but challenged me immediately about my commitment, my take on disability rights and I was suddenly embroiled in a heavy discussion. After a bit I went inside to meet my then boyfriend and another dear friend who were already involved with the group and protest I had come to join. The place was plain, clean and totally inaccessible. There were bunk beds in rooms whose doors were too narrow for a wheelchair to get inside, using the bathroom was an acrobatic feat, but no one paid the least attention. All of us Texans were assigned to the floor of a sitting room as our sleeping quarters; I set my stuff in there. It was dinnertime and folks were serving themselves from communal dishes of something like lasagna or maybe enchiladas and then they were drifting into a meeting room where a discussion of tomorrow’s protests was already starting. Cigarette smoke hung above the crowd like a bar of that time. Packed in like sardines, everyone was shouting, whispering passionately sharing ideas, theories on tactics and strategies, debating targets. Having missed the first day and being brand new, I just took it all in. I noticed a few folks were cleaning up the dishes. (The nuns required guests to clean up after themselves.) I realized I could help clean up and let those folks go and participate in the discussion, so that’s what I did. I had fallen completely in love. A community fueled by passion, ready for anything, not willing to put up with crap anymore, but at the same time not caught up in the small stuff. Not stuffy or picky, they were focused on the big picture and ready to do what needed to be done.
The group was ADAPT, started out of the Atlantis Community, a Denver center for independent living. They had grown from a group of folks who liberated themselves and their friends from nursing homes and other institutions and started the first home health agency in Colorado (second in the nation.) They sued the nursing home for violation of civil rights and obstruction of justice; the suit went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Atlantis folks. Wade Blank was the main organizer of the group and he and Mike Auberger partnered to lead ADAPT and the Atlantis Community.
Once out, the focus turned to making the community more accessible with curb cuts and transportation people could use. They called for lifts on buses, and when their call was ignored they took their battle to the streets, surrounding a bus and holding it hostage overnight as a start. After realizing their struggles to live in the community and get around were hardly unique to themselves, Atlantis ADAPT decided to create the Access Institute and invite disability activists (or would-be activists) to come and learn about their work and their approach to activism. They were also taking their struggle for accessible public transit to the national level. At least two trainings had taken place already and my friend Jim Parker and boyfriend Bob Kafka had already been to them. These trainings had some lecture, but they were really on-the-job-training as each was built around a series of protests; the discussion was a lot of the training. Bob and Jim were totally fired up and we had already started ADAPT of Texas and were focusing on getting transit systems in El Paso and Austin, as well as other Texas cities to buy buses with lifts.
I was totally amazed at the response we got that week and that other protests had gotten. I wanted to know more about the mechanics of how it all came together so I set out to study that. Shel Trapp was one of the main trainers and he happened to be doing some trainings down in Texas for the group he worked for, the National Training and Information Center, NTIC. I traveled across the state to go them and we also were able to get some Texas disability groups to bring him in for training as well.
In the meantime ADAPT folks from other states were coming into Texas to help us fight for lifts on buses and at least twice a year we were gathering from around the country to protest the meetings of the American Public Transit Association, APTA, the transit industry lobby group. APTA met all over in swishy convention spots, so it helped us spread the word around the whole country that people with disabilities were rising up for equality and integration. (Many of the earlier “Stories of Past Actions” in that section of this website are from those events.) It took seven years but by the time the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, passed in 1990, lifts on buses was the first part to take effect, one month after the ADA became law. Our fight for access to the buses became a symbol for the struggle for disability rights, for integration and equality.
Once we had won the bus issue, we gathered the clans, so to speak, and with barely any disagreement, decided on our next issue: freeing our people from nursing homes and other institutions. Different from many other disability groups, many, many ADAPT members at that time were people who had had to fight to get out of these disability ghettos. Stripped of almost everything, they were the ones who were willing to go to jail to fight for their rights. The dehumanizing of people because of their disability was not acceptable to us; people with disabilities had become the crop of a ‘long term care’ industry built to make money from our lives. We were determined to re-make the system so this would not happen to others, so community services and supports were the default and nursing homes and other institutions were a last resort if an option at all. It was time people with disabilities became a part of the community, not apart from it. ADAPT has been fighting this fight for integration ever since. Though we are not done, we have made significant headway along the way, and in addition we have taken on some other issues as they presented themselves and tied in with our general goals and strategies.
ADAPT has had to do many protests and we have done many acts of civil disobedience to call attention to our issues. ADAPT has had to do a great deal of policy work (policy wonking as we call it), to meet with bureaucrats, presidents, mayors, governors, legislators and staff up the wazoo. We have spoken with hundreds of reporters. We have testified before state and federal agencies as well as the state legislature (even created an “Adopt a Legislator” program), presented at conferences, negotiated with police; in other words, we’ve worked every prong of the advocacy pitchfork. I mention this only because once you’ve been arrested, or chained yourself to something it seems all your other actions fade from view.
This is the context in which I was trained and practiced much of my organizing. I also have worked in and trained other organizations too; groups which were not wanting to do civil disobedience, which were more interested in systems styles of advocacy. NTIC works with many groups that do wonderful direct actions that never result in arrest. I intend this manual and this site to expose folks who are interested in making change to a system that has worked again and again for all kinds of groups. In addition, I want to show some of the struggle for disability rights, to show that these rights did not come handed on a silver platter. However, I also want to challenge you to stretch your wings and think out of the box.