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Moments in Disability History 27

A Magna Carta and the Ides of March to the ADA

Protests and a Magna Carta marked the beginning and the end of the two year run-up to the passage of the ADA. Two history-making protests, the Ides of March to the ADA, occurred in the month of March – the Gallaudet student protest in March 1988 and the "Crawl Up" the Capitol steps in March 1990.

The Gallaudet protest marked the end of the public perception of people with disabilities as objects of pity and the beginning of a new public consciousness regarding people with disabilities. The "Capitol Crawl" marked the transition from a system of paternalistic care by well-meaning but insensitive people to viewing disability as a civil rights issue.

The Gallaudet Student Protest

The 1988 week-long protest by deaf students at Gallaudet University, calling for the appointment of a deaf university President, was a defining moment for the disability rights movement. This demonstration gave Americans a new rights consciousness about disability that grew out of a growing sense of oppression, gave voice to anger bottled up over years of individuals being seen as pitiful and sick, and was reflected in journalism.

According to a study by Beth Haller of Temple University, post-Gallaudet journalism focused less on "supercrips" and sad cases and shifted attention to stories using the words "disability" and rights in the same paragraph. Law makers quickly made the connection. The ADA was introduced two months after the Gallaudet protest. Lex Frieden, then of the National Council on the Handicapped said, "It would not have happened without Gallaudet raising people's consciousness."

It was a historical irony that deaf students, equating disability with civil rights, gave such a boost to the ADA movement when so many people who are deaf regard deafness as a culture but not as a disability.

Gallaudet Student Protest
Gallaudet Student Protest

A Magna Carta

By March 1990, the ADA had already passed the Senate and had bipartisan Congressional support. More than 8,500 citizens with disabilities, their advocates and organizations, signed a petition urging prompt approval by the House of Representatives and contributed funds for the publication of the petition on Wednesday, February 7, 1990 in The Washington Post.

In a sense, this petition, a creative and effective idea by the late Justin Dart, was a Magna Carta. Justin's wife, Yoshiko, recalled that it was very expensive to buy a full page ad but Justin convinced The Washington Post sales department to charge only half price.

Yoshiko solicited donations from around the country, kept up with hundreds of incoming contribution checks from $2, $5, and $10, to $25; sorting and depositing them in their local bank, and entering donors' names without a modern computer system. She said Senator Tom Harkin was impressed by the ad and instructed his aide to find out who organized it. The aide called the telephone number listed in the bottom of the ad.

One week later, on February 14, 1990, Justin had an opportunity to see President Bush in the Oval Office and wanted to make sure the President would see the actual ad. So he asked one of Yoshiko's daughters to write this message:

"Mr. President, Happy Valentine's! We love you!"

with red marker on the full page. He presented it to the President, who then smiled.

President Bush with Justin Dart February 14, 1990
President Bush with Justin Dart
February 14, 1990

The Capitol Crawl

When the ADA stalled in the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation (now the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure), people within the disability community became alarmed. About 475 individuals, many in wheelchairs, gathered on the sidewalk in front of the White House to launch the "Wheels of Justice Campaign". Sixty protesters with disabilities "cast aside their wheelchairs, crutches and walkers to crawl or drag themselves, step by step, up the 78 marble stairs of the Capitol's West Front.

This protest, that came to be known as the "Capitol Crawl", was intended to openly illustrate the struggles that people in the disabilities communities faced and spurred Congress to pass the ADA. About 1,000 other protesters watched as members of ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, now known only as ADAPT) threw themselves out of their chairs and began their crawl. Together, the march and the crawl comprised one of the largest disability direct actions to date.

The late Michael Winter, former Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, contributed his reflections on the "Capitol Crawl" to ADAPT's 25th Anniversary "I Was There Series" of firsthand accounts:

"Some people may have thought it was undignified for people in wheelchairs to crawl in that manner, but I felt that it was necessary to show the country what kinds of things people with disabilities have to face on a day-to-day basis. We had to be willing to fight for what we believed in."

Capitol Crawl March 12, 1990
  "Capitol Crawl" March 12, 1990


Shapiro, Joseph, P., No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, (1993), Times Books, Random House, New York and Canada, pgs. 74-75.

Equal Access, Equal Opportunity: 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Faircount Media Group, pages 48-57

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