1994 – Washington – Diane Coleman

The April 1994 ADAPT action in Washington, D.C. began with a march across Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial. The National Council on Independent Living, Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities and other groups joined ADAPT as we lead 2,500 in the march, which Bob Liston later called “incredible and breathtaking.” Speakers at the rally that followed included Senator Tom Harkin, Chair of the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities Tony Coelho, Justin Dart, ADAPT leaders Stephanie Thomas and Mike Auberger, and others. I had the unforgettable privilege of singing “Free Our People” at the Lincoln Memorial.

The Clinton plan for universal health care was on the political table that spring, and ADAPT’s focus and mission was to ensure that the plan would include our civil right to consumer directed personal assistance services and a real choice in long term care. Fifty ADAPT members as well as representatives from other disability groups were invited to the East Room of the White House, where Bill Clinton told us: “Be an agent of change, an agent of empowerment, never forget that you are carrying on your shoulders now not only your own cause, but ours as well. . . . We cannot run away from this, because we cannot afford to have everybody forced into a nursing home or living in abject neglect . . .” He told us to take our message to Congress.

Early Tuesday morning, five hundred ADAPT members began the series of Metro elevator and train rides to Capitol South, to take our message to Congressional leaders. ADAPT’s strategy began with the unprecedented step of simultaneously taking over the party headquarters of the Democratic and Republican National Committees. Our demand was a meeting with the Chairs and Co-Chairs of the key Congressional Committees addressing health care reform.

While we were still arriving at the Metro station, before splitting off toward our as yet unannounced destinations, Bob Kafka was interviewed about our issues. Bob said, “Families and individuals are in crisis…. It’s really a human and civil rights issue.” After more explanation, he said, “If we don’t get support services, the Dr. Kevorkian’s of the world will start killing us.” Kevorkian had already been acquitted two or three times, but this was before the founding of Not Dead Yet, and I was impressed by Bob’s directness.

The DNC action began with blocked doors and meetings with security, but it wasn’t long before the admission of a few led to everyone streaming into the building. When we were told that the Chair was out of town, we said that we would wait. Numerous ADAPTers began crawling up the staircase, and some went up in the elevators, but then everything was closed off to us. We demanded a meeting with Kennedy, Dingell, Rostankowski and Moynihan, but were only offered meetings with staff.

At about 3:30 p.m., Stephanie Thomas and I each took an elevator. By that time, some people were desperate for restroom accommodations, or at least some privacy to use a urinal; so two people went into my elevator while I blocked the doorway.

After four hours occupying all three floors of the DNC, ADAPT negotiated a peaceful departure based on the DNC spokesperson’s acknowledgement that meetings with Congressional staffers would not be sufficient, along with her commitment to try to set up meetings with the specific Democratic leaders on our list.

Before we left the building, Cassie James spoke to the 250 adapters at the DNC. Among other powerful remarks, Cassie made a compelling statement about the “inconvenience” we had caused that day: “The inconvenience of incarceration, this is what we’ve been facing our whole life. We have been told that we are being protected from ourselves, we have been locked in, we have been drugged when we try to get out and see a simple movie or visit a friend. Our lives have been turned around. … This inconvenience is just one day of your life.”

Back at the hotel, we learned that things at the RNC were about the same.

At the Tuesday night meeting at the ADAPT hotel, we all sang “Happy Anniversary” to Bob and Stephanie. What a way to celebrate eight years of marriage!

Wednesday morning started at 8 a.m. as people donned rain ponchos and garbage bags. On this cold and rainy day, we were taking our message to the halls of Congress, specifically the Russell and Rayburn Buildings. Congressman Dingell, Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, offered a meeting to the 250 ADAPTers in the Rayburn contingent.

The Congressman’s initial idea of a “meeting” was that he would speak to us about working to get votes for the President’s universal health care plan. At first, it was difficult to get him to listen to our concerns. He said that “long-term care” was included. Stephanie pushed, saying, that he needed to listen to us, that we would only be there one more day, that attendant services are not “generic long-term care.” Then others spoke up for the ADAPT plan too, like LaTonya Reeves, who said, “People would not have to move all over the United States because in their home town they don’t have attendant services … I would rather move than be locked up, mistreated and my dignity taken away.”

Bob said that we’re always told there’s no money for consumer directed in-home services, but they can always find an entitlement for hospitals, nursing homes and “home health.” Mark Johnson said that the President’s plan does not draw a line in the sand and say, “It’s about people, not profits.” The applause rose up as each member made our case for reversing the institutional bias.

Next, at the Russell Building, 250 ADAPTers met with top aides for Senators Kassebaum (R-KS), Kennedy (D-MA) and Moynihan (D-NY), and secured agreements for follow up meetings back home.

I was in the group that next went to the offices of then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. Along with several Georgia ADAPTers, I got into his inner office, where a drawing from the home health industry was on display. At first, Gingrich was reportedly not available at all that day, but we said we would wait. Before long, he “miraculously” appeared.

A Georgia ADAPTer named James spoke about having been in a diving accident and winding up in a nursing home for ten years. He said that “home health” would not come and get him up every morning. He waited years until a slot opened up on the Georgia attendant services program that then served only fifty people, but he had now been living independently for five years. Mark Johnson estimated that 6,000 more people in Georgia needed that program. Bob Kafka explained that our position is about redirecting the funding, the “dollars follow the individual.” What a concept!

Gingrich stated agreement with our goals, and offered to take three steps. He said he would write to Republicans to be active in drafting a bill for attendant services, have a task force write to the Governors to make attendant services “the alternative of choice,” and actively support putting attendant services in whatever health care bill comes up. He strongly recommended that we get a freestanding bill in the meantime, and get co-sponsors so that it would be easier to add our bill to the bigger health care bill when the time came.

Gingrich also acknowledged that if we had not come up to see him that day, “it might not have gotten my attention.” This ultimately led to his introduction of the first MiCASA, testimony to the power of ADAPT’s direct action strategies.