On the afternoon of March 11th, I was very excited as I thought about the next day’s activities. I had been elected President of the National Council on Independent Living and had dedicated myself and the organization to working with ADAPT to ensure that we do anything and everything necessary to get the Americans with Disabilities Act signed. At the same time, I was on a Transit Board and the Executive Director of the Berkley Center for Independent Living. I felt very fortunate that I was able to participate in this historical event.
The next morning, I thought about the many times that I had been discriminated against: being forced to go to a “special” segregated school instead of integrated ones, not being allowed on a Continental Trailways bus because of my disability, and being told in a restaurant that “We don’t serve disabled people.” But I also had very positive thoughts about what a great life and great opportunities I had to that point. I was determined to work to overcome the injustices of discrimination and create more positive opportunities for myself and for others with disabilities.
As I listened to the speakers on that day, I considered how life had prepared me for this moment of civil disobedience. Although I had taken part in such “street theatre” before, this seemed like the crowning glory of them all.
After the speeches, we started chanting “What do we want?” “ADA!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!” The chants became louder and louder, and ultimately my good friend Monica Hall told me that it was time to get out of my wheelchair and crawl up the steps to the Capitol Building. Monica took my wheelchair, smiled and said, “I’ll meet you at the top!” I started to climb step by step towards the top.
At the very beginning, I looked up and thought that I would never make it. But right below me was a seven year old girl who was making the same climb, step by step, her wheelchair left somewhere below or whisked somewhere above. This was Tom Olin’s young niece. I felt an obligation to be a role model for this girl and we ultimately made it to the top together.
Some people may have thought that it was undignified for people in wheelchairs to crawl in that manner, but I felt that it was necessary to show the country what kinds of things people with disabilities have to face on a day-to-day basis. We had to be willing to fight for what we believed in.
The next day, we visited the Capitol under the pretense of wanting to go on a tour. I was one of the only demonstrators wearing a tie; my Board of Directors insisted that as the CEO of a nonprofit organization, I might as well look professional if I was going to get arrested. There was a lovely young woman who was volunteering at the Capitol to give tours over the summer, and as more and more people arrived she approached me and shared her excitement at giving a tour to so many people with disabilities.
A few minutes later we all began chanting, and Congressmen came to assure us that the ADA would be passed. These individuals included House Speaker Foley, Republican leader Michel, and Congressman Hoyer. We got louder and louder and all of a sudden, chains came out and people began to chain themselves in a circle. The young volunteer came up to me and asked, “Do you think they’re ready for their tour now?” I was sorry and somewhat amused to be the one to tell her that no one would be touring on that day and that many individuals would probably be arrested.
Soon after this, the Capitol police began arresting people and cutting chains. The whole process took 2-3 hours and resulted in my own arrest. We were all sent to the Capitol jail and were scheduled to appear before a judge late that evening. In jail, I had the honor of being with Wade Blank, Michael Auberger, and many other disabled activists. It is ironic and perhaps fitting that I now oversee the implementation and compliance to the transportation provisions of the ADA, the law that we all fought so hard for.
I remember Evan Kemp watching the proceedings very closely from the back of the courtroom, and I remember our attorney, Tim Cook, informing the judge that we all pled guilty, that all of the defendants were part of the “Wheels of Justice” campaign to end the segregation of and the discrimination towards people who use wheelchairs. All of the defendants were released on our own recognizance and were given one year of probation.
I was the only one who was fined, because I held a job with significant income, and I was proud to “donate” $100.00 to the cause of justice and equality. Those few days and the passing of the ADA were monumental for me as an individual and an activist, but also for people across the United States of America. We now have taken steps to move towards inclusion and away from segregation and discrimination of people with disabilities.
I often think of these days and the lessons and power that they brought me in my current job as Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Federal Transit Administration. It is important to keep these memories fresh in our minds and to avoid complacency in the face of injustice.