Chapter 21. Adapt
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376 21 ADAPT If the independent living movement, founded by university students and graduates, represented an educated elite among Americans with disabilities, and if groups such as CAPH represented more workingclass disabled, then the rank and file of ADAPT brought to the issues of disability oppression the perspective of those at the bottom of the educational, social, and economic ladder. As ADAPT organizer Mark Johnson says, many ADAPT members “can’t read or write, many have had little or no education at all.” Many—and this was certainly true of the original members of the mid1980s —are alums of some of the nation’s worst institutions and nursing homes and often rely on Supplemental Security Income for their livelihood, meaning that they live at or below the federal poverty line. On the one hand, this situation could make the task of ADAPT organizers such as Mark Johnson and Stephanie Thomas—themselves college-educated professionals—more difficult. On the other, that ADAPT members often feel they have little or nothing to lose makes them more likely to participate in the confrontational, direct-action methods that have come to be ADAPT’s trademark. ADAPT—which originally stood for American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit—traces its origins to Colorado’s first independent living center , the Atlantis Community, Inc., and its founder the Reverend Wade Blank. Although not himself a person with a disability, Blank had had experience in the civil rights movement, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965. Born in Pittsburgh in December 1940, Blank was educated as a Presbyterian minister and was called in 1966 to serve a congregation in Akron, Ohio. His wife, Molly Blank, remembers, “Before then, he was a traveling minister to several small churches in small towns in Ohio. And then he went to Akron and became involved with the Kent State SDS people, and let them use the mimeograph machine in his church. When the shootings happened—he knew some of those kids.1 He spearheaded a big demonstration after the shootings. And adapt 377 he and two others—an ex-priest and a Congregationalist—founded a radical bookstore in Akron.” Blank also helped to smuggle anti–Vietnam War draft resisters into Canada. “Because of his support for the SDS, the FBI went to his church and said, ‘You need to find yourself another minister.’ He got fired, and that was the last congregation he ever had.”2 Blank arrived in Denver in December 1971 and found work at the Heritage House nursing home. Conditions at Heritage House were typically awful, with substandard food and few meaningful activities for the residents, many of whom were younger people with disabilities. The “work activities program,” for example, involved being bused to a sheltered workshop where participants counted fishhooks. Wade described the atmosphere as “like a morgue,” with residents consigned to waiting for death. “I was going to work every day and asking myself, ‘If I was disabled, is this the way I’d want to live the rest of my life?’ ”3 Blank began pushing for change, organizing meetings of the younger residents . Over the course of the next four years he managed to negotiate some relatively meaningful reforms—getting the administration to allow residents to have pets, for instance, and to keep TVs and stereos in their rooms. But when Blank suggested that some residents might actually be able to leave the nursing home altogether to live in the community, he was promptly fired. “They came in and they took all the stereos and TVs . . . had the dog pound come by and get all the animals, and in one day it went from everything I’d built for four years—to that.” Within six months of being fired Blank helped eighteen residents to leave Heritage House, moving them into apartments and assuming direct responsibility for their care. These residents in turn formed the nucleus of the Atlantis Community. A number of them and their families sued Heritage House for fraud and abuse (among other issues, it was alleged that the nursing home had for years illegally appropriated residents’ Social Security checks). These suits were eventually settled out of court (as described below). In January 1975, Atlantis began its campaign to force Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) to make its bus system totally accessible. The choice of accessible mass transit as the issue to organize around was highly astute, as it addressed a need felt by the majority of people with more...


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Subject Headings

  • United States. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • People with disabilities -- Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • People with disabilities -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History.
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