“What we did for civil rights in the ‘60s, we forgot to do for people with disabilities.”
– Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
On Monday, March 12, 1990 disability rights activists descended on the U.S. Capitol demanding the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which would give equal rights to people with disabilities. The ADA was passed by the Senate the year before but as finding complications getting through the House of Representatives. Over 1,000 protesters came from 30 states to protest the Act’s delay.
After the day’s rally and speeches, over 60 activists abandoned their wheelchairs and mobility devices and began crawling the 83 stone steps up to the U.S. Capitol Building. During which people were loudly chanting “What do we want?” “ADA!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!” Other activists remained at the bottom holding signs and giving encouragement to the crawlers. “I want my civil rights,” Paulette Patterson of Chicago stated as she was inching her way to the top. “I want to be treated like a human being.” Eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan was famously taped [as seen in the video above] while crawling up the stairs. “I’ll take all night if I have to,” she firmly stated. The second-grader from Denver suffered from cerebral palsy and decided to partake in the crawl after joining ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit). She was inspired by her friend Kenny Perkins who passed away in January 1990. As Jennifer reached the top she stated, “I’m doing it for Kenny.” Michael Winters, a leader in the Independent Living Movement, later wrote about event and the reaction people had to the crawl. “Some people may have thought that 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,” Winters recalled. “We had to be willing to fight for what we believed in.”
Senator Tom Harkin had authored and introduced the ADA to the Senate, delivering part of the speech in sign language so his deaf brother could understand. If it passed, it would outlaw discrimination based on physical or mental disability in employment, access to buildings and public and private transportation as well as other issues. The ADA had four goals for people with disabilities: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. “We’re not asking for any favors,” asserted I. King Jordan, the first deaf president of Gallaudet College for the deaf. “We’re simply asking the same rights and equality any other American has.” Within four months, the Act passed in the House. On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. On signing the measure, President Bush said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” The Act that Senator Tom Harkin and the disability activists worked so hard to pass had finally become law. The “Capitol Crawl” had an effect on the passage of the ADA. Several Senators felt “inconvenience” by the “stunt” and it reportedly pushed them to approve the Act. At the time, the event was not widely known to the public since the media failed to shed much light on it. But to present-day disability activists, on the other hand, the “Capitol Crawl” is seen as one of the single most important events that finally pushed for the passage of the ADA into law. In 2010, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 celebrated its 20th Anniversary. Senator Harkin penned an article about the legacy of the Act for The Huffington Post:
But at its heart, the ADA is simple. In the words of one activist, this landmark law is about securing for people with disabilities the most fundamental of rights: ‘the right to live in the world.’ It ensures they can go places and do things that other Americans take for granted.
Jennifer Keelan of Denver, CO (the little girl in the video at the top of the post) talks about growing up as a person with a disability in the era of the ADA, as well as her activism as young child fighting for the ADA.
William J. Eaton, “Disabled Persons Rally, Crawl Up Capital Steps,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1990.
William M. Welch, “Disabled protesters make stand,” The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia), March 13, 1990.
Sen. Tom Harkin, “Americans with Disabilities Act at 20: A Nation Transformed,” The Huffington Post, July 26, 2010.
Michael Winters, “I was there…” Adapt History Project.