1996 – Houston – Dawn Russell

My story begins when I arrive at the airport in Memphis. I watched ADAPT members from Georgia navigate the chaos created by not having a direct flight to Houston. As I waited to board the plane I was overwhelmed by emotion. I have no words that describe the shame I felt the instant I realized I had spent my entire life lying to myself. I had believed I was conscious and responsive to situations and issues that surrounded my life. I used David to hide my face as if these strangers with disabilities would see me cry and know I had not only turned my back on our issues but I had turned my back on them. Before I met ADAPT I knew two types of people with disabilities, invalids and super gimps and my plans were never to be either one.

I was born in 1965 in the Mississippi Delta and institutionalized when I was three. I spent six months in Crippled Children’s Hospital in Memphis before the Doctors at Campbell’s Clinic admitted that my progress was measurable and I was able to go home to the Delta. For almost a decade I believed my eventual return and length of stay depended on my progress and performance. Today I understand it was not about me at all but about an empty nursing home bed.

As a little girl I spent time celebrating and emulating Dawn’s way, the rebellion I knew had taken place from the Delta of Mississippi to Memphis Tennessee. I had no comprehension of how close in time my life was to the recent history I wanted to be a part of, the birth of Rock and Roll and the Civil Rights Movement. When I fantasized about my life, I never dreamed two decades later I would be marching in the streets of Houston for my own civil rights.

Here are a few of my memories from Houston.

I had gone up to the room to settle in for what I thought would be the longest six days of my life. David had called to see how I was doing when I heard a knock at the door I said just a minute and I wiped the tears away. I didn’t know anyone in Houston so I could not imagine who was at the door. I opened the door and standing in front of me was Dorian Siegel. After saying hello, Dorian said I’ll be your attendant and he asked me what do you need. My response to him was change for a coke. When he stopped laughing Dorian explained what he meant. And his thirty-second explanation changed my life forever. It meant that in the morning I did not have to worry about taking at least forty-five minutes to put my shoes on but more important he answered a question I had contemplated for six years, how would I ever repay David for all he had done for me and if the time came, how would I take care of him.

I remember my little red sundress and white jacket (thanks’ Tom Cagle for the fashion advice).

I remember other first time ADAPT members Malachi Cunningham, Little Gordie Haug and Kevin Irvine.

I remember meeting Ron Ford and becoming best friends.

And I remember the energy in the room as we waited for our special guest to arrive, Secretary of HUD Henry Cisneros. I had only been working for the Memphis Center for Independent Living since mid March and had no prior experience with housing. I knew there were people working in housing authorities across the country, many their entire careers that would never have this opportunity. I understood the power of ADAPT.

The night of the party I was talking to Toby and shared with him that when I arrived on Saturday I said to myself, If I ever get my ass out of here I will never be back and by Wednesday night I knew I would die an ADAPT member.