Forty years ago, nineteen people in wheelchairs rolled in front of and behind two Regional Transportation District buses at the intersection of Colfax Avenue and Broadway. The Gang of 19, as these protesters later became known, blocked the buses from moving on July 5, 1978, to call attention to the need for more accessibility on RTD buses.
Although it took some years, the gang's advocacy, heralded by the famous slogan "We will ride," eventually led to a wheelchair-accessible transit system in Denver and sparked a nationwide movement calling for full accessibility on public transportation.
ADAPT, the disability-rights advocacy group birthed from that original Gang of 19 protest, is back in town for its annual national meeting. And forty years on, about 200 ADAPT activists and their supporters are taking to the streets of Denver this week to push for more independent-living options for wheelchair users and equality for all.
ADAPT's first event of the national meetup was on the afternoon of November 12, when members from across the country gathered at Civic Center Park for a rally. Chants of "Our home, not nursing homes" and "Up with attendant care, down with nursing homes" echoed in the park's Greek Theater.
Despite the frosty temperatures, Lieutenant Governor-elect Dianne Primavera and Senator-elect Jessie Danielson spoke to the crowd. Danielson, who introduced herself in sign language, previously worked in the independent-living field, while Primavera has a background in rehabilitation counseling.
"I want to make it a top priority of the governor's office to provide equal rights and equal access to Colorado's mentally, intellectually and physically disabled," said Primavera, garnering cheers from the crowd.
Andy Rosen, one of the Gang of 19 protesters, traveled from Nebraska with his wife, Hava, to attend the rally.
"We never thought in our wildest dreams that it'd turn into this," Rosen said while gesturing to fellow ADAPT members. "It feels great. I wish I could stay."
Joining the Rosens was John Holland, the lawyer who represented ADAPT and its sister group, the Atlantis Community, during the legal fight against RTD in the ’70s.
"Representing [them] was totally liberating. Being a lawyer, you deal with compromises, settlements and negotiations. But that was never our position. We always wanted exactly what we wanted," said Holland.
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So far this week, meetup attendees have met with the Department of Health and Human Services, asking the city department to help end shock treatments occurring around the U.S.on people with disabilities. ADAPT members also met with the Colorado Division of Housing to demand more affordable and accessible housing. And they're pressuring RTD to develop more same-day transit options for individuals in wheelchairs who cannot ride in non-wheelchair-accessible Lyft and Uber vehicles.
ADAPT has also been pushing a national bill that would advance the rights of people with disabilities.
The Disability Integration Act, introduced by New York Senator Chuck Schumer in April 2017, mandates that people with disabilities have a right to receive treatment at home rather than at an institution, if they so choose. Disability-rights advocates from ADAPT consider it the next logical step in the fight for full equality. But only Democrats have signed on to co-sponsor the bill, meaning that it won't leave the Republican-controlled Senate without more signatories.
With support for the bill clearly divided along partisan lines, ADAPT members have taken a keen interest in letting Senator Cory Gardner know how they feel about his lack of support. On multiple occasions in the past, Denver ADAPT members and their colleagues from across the country have rolled into Senator Gardner's office, demanding that he support various health-care-related issues, the Disability Integration Act among them. His office has called the police on activists each time.