1998 – Washington – Tim Wheat

The keys to the National Republican Party Headquarters were dangling in the doorway to the exclusive “Capitol Club.” I instinctively grabbed them out of the lock and tossed them to Mike Auberger.

Suddenly, at least, the security personal were happy to come out to talk with ADAPT.

The heart of direct action is taking action. At the end of October 1998 in Washington DC, ADAPT was striking back to help preserve the Americans with Disabilities Act and the gains we had made in transportation.

Just 8 years after the historic civil rights legislation became law, Georgia was attempting to erase the “integration mandate” from the ADA. The state argued in federal court that institutions were appropriate places for people with disabilities – and they had won. The Olmstead case would go to the Supreme Court in early 1999.

Many people spoke of how the ADA had attempted too much. They used language similar to those who opposed lifts on buses. Rather than “local option,” adversaries lectured about “unfunded mandates” and “states rights.”

They said the momentum was gone from the ADA and, frustrating especially to ADAPT’s history, the American Bus Association was suing to stop the mandate for lifts on all new buses. People with disabilities had made significant gains over the past few years; maybe progress should slowdown?

Action, however, is what ADAPT is about. Hundreds of ADAPT activists flooded into Washington DC to regain the initiative with the message that we will be the ones to define our rights.

Direct Action had proven very successful in establishing equality in transportation. Wade Blank explained that in cities like Denver that used Direct Action, the transportation systems made commitments to accessibility. Cities without direct action of people with disabilities demanding equal access were lagging noticeably behind.

Cross-country buses, notably Greyhound, were using their lawyers and a tactic of delay to avoid regulations to make over-the-road buses accessible. On the final day of the fall action, a team of about 30 ADAPT activists negotiated all day with the American Bus Association. The ABA’s office is the old Greyhound Terminal in Washington DC where most of us chanted for hours in the acoustically amplifying giant marble foyer. The ABA gave up, and ADAPT had secured a meeting with the ABA president, after the police came and prepared to make hundreds of arrests.

The day before, ADAPT demanded that the Department of Health and Human Services, specifically the Healthcare Finance Administration (HCFA), that runs Medicaid, stop backpedaling on enforcement of the ADA “integration mandate.” Activists had spent the day in a tussle, as General Service Police Officers pulled people from doors and out of wheelchairs. One entrance at a time, the officers and activists pushed and filled empty space. It was a non-violent dance of authority and passion.

Of course, about 40 activists had the parking garage blocked, and as the end of the business day came near, HHS administration and the officers realized that they couldn’t play the same game with the parking lot. As soon as they pulled someone out of the drive, another adapt activist would take their place and keep all the cars bottled up.

When HCFA realized they had to negotiate to get home, John Callahan, the Assistant Secretary of Management and Budget, invited an ADAPT team in to work out the details. When that team refused to accept the first draft of an agreement, the activists inside only had to point Mr. Callahan to the window, where he could see and hear ADAPT’s passion and commitment. He realized that ADAPT meant what they said, and agreed in writing that ADAPT would meet with the Secretary herself. Each one of us played a role that day.

The part of this action that I remember best is the small role I played at the National Republican Party Headquarters. On the first day of action ADAPT split into a bipartisan force and hit the Republican and Democratic national headquarters. The direct goal was support of MiCASSA, but everyone wanted to make a clear statement that institutionalization is discrimination like the ADA says.

I remember this well because, before we actually blocked the doors to the National Republican Headquarters, we were attempting to crowd into the building. In the struggle at the front door, a security guard had left the keys hanging in the door and I grabbed them and tossed the keys to Mike.

The security personnel threatened to have me arrested on all kinds of felonies, but I had no idea where the keys were. They could identify me as the person who grabbed the keys, but they didn’t know what I did with them.

Mike Auberger did all the talking, and they grilled him about the keys. Mike never lost the focus on why ADAPT was there, and turned all the Republican Party folks questions back to support for our legislation.

For all I knew, Mike had the keys right there with him.

ADAPT got letters of support from both the Republicans and Democrats that day. But the un-quantified success of the October 1998 action was that ADAPT had sent the message to the disability rights community, and to the nation that we would not accept a slow unraveling of our civil rights. We demanded equality. We were going to fight Olmstead and we were going to win.