On July 5, 1978, 19 disabled activists positioned themselves in downtown Denver’s busy intersection of Broadway and Colfax. For two days, they used their wheelchairs to surround several Regional Transportation District (RTD) buses and block them from operating. There was no need to question what they wanted as they shouted it frequently throughout their protest.
“We will ride!”
The 19 activists, who would become known as the ‘Gang of 19’, protested RTD’s failure to provide wheelchair-accessible buses. They made it clear they would remain unmoved until RTD representatives agreed to listen to their demands. As the protest gained the attention of local and national media, RTD relented to meeting with the group and eventually agreed to add wheelchair lifts to its bus fleet. This led to RTD becoming the nation’s first public transit district to be wheelchair accessible.
The Gang of 19’s actions would resonate beyond gaining accessible transportation. Their protest and the protests by disabled advocates across the country would spark the modern disability rights movement laying the foundation for the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
Since its signing into law 32 years ago, the Americans With Disability Act has significantly impacted the lives of people with disabilities in this country. Still, as much as the ADA has ensured the right of people with disabilities to access jobs, schools, and transportation and gives them legal recourse when encountering discrimination, enforcement is complex and challenging. Substantial inclusion and equality remain out of reach for many disabled Americans.
25.9 percent of individuals with disabilities aged 18-64 live in poverty compared to 11.4 percent without a disability. Disabled people struggle to find suitable employment that pays a fair wage and affordable and accessible housing.
The ADA has its flaws, and its effects are limited (much of that stems from a few Supreme Court decisions over the years), and this has caused many to question its usefulness and even call for it to be repealed.
That is why days after the initial aftermath of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I took to Twitter to warn of a potentially similar fate with the ADA.
Given the significant opposition at the time of its drafting and singing, opposition that very much continues today, it’s not histrionic to think there will be a court case that seeks to eliminate the ADA in the future.
I agree that the ADA has its problems, but the answer is not to repeal it. It is naive to believe that much of the civil rights gained by and continues to protect disabled people since it became law would have come about without it.
A better and more effective route would be for businesses to own and address their issues (many known before high-cost lawsuits come into play) and for local and state agencies to enforce regulations and codes modified to match ADA standards. Also, as Lainey Feingold says, “letting bad actors in the legal space create an atmosphere of fear and influence policy.”
For years I used to wait for the bus at the very intersection where the Gang of 19 held their protest, sometimes with friends who used the wheelchair lifts that those 19 individuals positioned their very lives for RTD to install. Forty-four years since that protest in 1978, and 32 years since the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, I think about how far we have come and I am grateful for all those who have come before me, giving their blood, sweat, and tears for civil rights of disabled Americans. In 2022, as a digital accessibility advocate at the intersections of a technological economic and political revolutions I know we got so far to go.