Disability Rights Radical
With Michael Patrick Smith, the Gang of Nineteen, and Jennifer Keelan
Down with the establishment! The hippies got that right. The Rev. Wade Blank is angry. Years of letters, petitions, meetings and courtrooms have gotten his people zero justice.
The revolution starts today.
Wade sets down his morning coffee, picks up his good luck charm, the geode his friend Mike Smith gave him. “This reminds me of you, Wade,” he said. “Rough on the outside, beautiful inside.”
It all started with those damn poems of Mike’s.
“The future stood before him but was out of his reach,” the brilliant, disabled poet wrote while imprisoned in a nursing home. And then the muscular dystrophy took him away.
Well, today is for Mike, may he rest in peace, and for all the disabled people still alive and yet to be born. Today they reach for the future.
Power to the people!
The reverend lets the broken halves of the souvenir rock fall open. Jagged crystals sparkle in the morning sun. They’re purple like the stole he once wore on his shoulders, the liturgical color of repentance, a spiritual practice on which he spends little time. If fighting for justice pisses people off, well, tough shit. Jesus was a table flipper. That attitude cost Wade his church job. As if he cares. He’s still ordained. And today he’s answering a call from God. To free God’s disabled children, God’s disabled adults.
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Wade flicks his wrist and checks the time. A few minutes to spare. He tucks his t-shirt into his jeans, combs his fingers through his long, lanky blond hair, touches the purple crystals.
All at once, weird perceptions prickle his senses. Humidity envelops the room. He smells sweat, hears a child’s voice yelling. Something about steps? Strange images swirl before his eyes, like he’s on sacramental peyote. Video cameras, flashbulbs, people chained together. He hears singing.
What the hell? Is this a divine vision? Unlikely. God doesn’t send visions to Presbyterians.
Then a row of suits. Gawd, I really can’t stand those guys. He feels spray as if from a fountain. Smells roses. Hears applause. Silver pens flash in the sunshine.
He shakes his head to clear it, takes a deep breath, grabs the bag hanging from the back of his chair and stuffs the rock into it. The hallucinations disappear. He’d better get going. The gang is assembling.
They have buses to block.
July 5, 1978
One by one, the Atlantis Community residents wheeled onto the sidewalk at the corner of Colfax and Broadway, the busiest intersection in Denver. Not long ago, most of them rarely saw the out of doors, cooped up inside, strapped down sometimes. Today they were laughing, smiling, high-fiving, spinning circles, those who could. Wade walked through the group, greeting each by name.
“Linda, good to see you.
“Terri, glad you could make it.
“George, I knew you’d be up for this.
“Willy, ready for a long day?”
And so on, down the line, Carolyn, Mel, Debbie, Kerry, Lori, Bob, Cindy, Renate, Mary Ann, Bobby, Jeannie, Jim, Glenn, Larry, and Paul.
Some of the gang sat up straight in the way society considered dignified. Others flopped sideways over the armrests in the way God created them to do. Some of the women wore lipstick. A few of the men looked like they had never made acquaintance with a comb. The Gang of Nineteen was a motley crew. And destined to get motlier. The day was heating up fast, road dust churned in the air.
Wade watched the cars roll along Colfax and Broadway, looked through the windshields at the drivers, imagined what they were thinking: What are all the gimps doing on the street? What’s up with the cripples?
People with muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries and the like didn’t normally wheel around city streets. They stayed home, or, God help them, in a nursing facility. Not that the drivers had a clue what disability any of the gang had, but able-bodied people “just knew” the last thing a “wheelchair bound” person wanted to do was parade around in public. Everybody knew that.
Everybody but the gang in the chairs. And Wade.
He watched the drivers scratching their heads, craning their necks out the side windows.
They have no idea. Just wait.
The revolution was starting.
It actually began seven years ago. A few young people wanted to watch TV, listen to rock ‘n’ roll, and eat food that required chewing. A poet wanted his poems written down.
Wade had needed a fresh start. His church congregation in Ohio insisted on more pomp, less protest. So he headed west. Heritage House Nursing Home in Lakewood, Colorado, offered him a job where he could do some good. The big, old state institutions were shutting down. Disabled people were let out to live in their home communities. Seemed like a progressive move. Family could more easily visit if their relatives lived in the hometown. Heritage saw a need to fill. The nursing home would open a Youth Wing. Administration hired Wade to recruit and manage the young residents. He was perfect for the job. Young, hip, long hair and all. But ordained, steady, levelheaded and all that.
Or so they thought.
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Wade recalled those Heritage smells. Urine and antiseptic. And then that first meal. Baked potatoes, applesauce and scrambled eggs. Cold. The old folk, with teeth worn out from a lifetime of steak and corn on the cob, may have been grateful, or maybe not. But the young people, for all their other maladies, had strong enough teeth. He could make a difference here.
He started by asking them a question they’d never been asked before: What do you want?
Pizza, for starters.
And to choose their own clothes, and their own radio stations.
Then he hit the road. Seek and ye shall find. And find he did, young people with cerebral palsy and spina bifida still trapped in institutions. Amputees and accident survivors with brain injuries unable to leave rehab centers. He gave them the good news of Heritage Youth Wing. Twenty, forty, sixty residents, then a waiting list.
After cranking up the rock ‘n’ roll radio and replacing the squishy food, Wade fought the 8:00 drug-induced bedtime. He brought in a TV and tuned it to Laugh-In instead of Lawrence Welk. The place rocked like a college dorm.
He got a van to haul them and their chairs. They headed to the mountains, wheeled around in the dirt, smelled the pine, felt the spray from waterfalls, heard the crackle of campfire, ate s’mores. They cheered at baseball games. Hooted at professional wrestling matches. Went out for ice cream.
The effort involved in getting them into concert venues would have challenged the biblical Samson, but was totally worth it. They rocked with the Grateful Dead at the Denver Coliseum, sang “Rocky Mountain High” along with John Denver at Red Rocks. Some with gusto, others croaked it out.
It wasn’t enough. Nothing could ever be enough. No amount of ice cream and music can fix a prison. A prison for the innocent. How can you make a nursing home acceptable? You just can’t. What they needed was freedom. So he moved them out. Eighteen to start.
Like the Presbyterian Church before them, Heritage House thought they’d hired a progressive and got a radical instead. A crazy. He got fired. And fired up.
Severely disabled people, living on their own. Making their own decisions. Wade helped them with dressing, toileting, whatever they needed. More people got set free. Apartment doors were widened, counters lowered. Attendants were hired to help. Whatever assistance a person needed, they figured out a way. They pooled their Medicaid and SSI, shared. Atlantis Community they called themselves. Like the lost continent, or the Donovan song.
But the freedom was incomplete. None of the Atlantis residents could drive. A bus drove past their apartments countless times a day, but there was no way to get a wheelchair on board. RTD’s Handi-Ride pretended to be an option. Twelve little buses for five thousand subscribers. What a joke.
Dialing . . .
Hello, Handi-Ride here.
I need a ride to the grocery store.
I’ll put you down for a week from today.
I’m out of food!
Shoulda thought of that sooner.
Dialing . . .
Hello, Handi-Ride here.
Can I get a ride to the Lakewood Grill?
That’s a tavern. You shouldn’t be drinking.
Dialing . . .
Can I get a ride to church?
Got an opening in two weeks at nine.
Service is every Sunday. At eight o’clock.
There are TV evangelists for shut-ins, ya know.
So Atlantis went political. Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, ADAPT, they called themselves, and they wheeled over to the Regional Transportation District Board to talk and talk and talk.
“The wheelchair ban on regularly-scheduled buses is for your own good,” RTD insisted, “plus, you understand we can’t inconvenience able-bodied riders.”
ADAPT wrote letters. To City Council, the Legislature, Congress. Petitioned. Made a nuisance of themselves. And sued. The judge expressed concern for their safety. Somebody might get hurt, he fretted. Total bullshit. Sitting on his pedestal, flapping his black robe, the guy was a freaking ignoramus. They lost.
That was last week.
This is today.
Today they win.
“Let’s roll!” Wade lifted his arm and waved.
A man in his chair, hands on the wheels, pushed forward toward the bus stop.
“Kick some ass!” Wade said as the man rolled past to the edge of the curb. A bus pulled up. The man waited.
The door swung open. “Waddaya want?” said the driver.
“I want to ride.”
“What are you? Crazy?”
Of course this was crazy, but none of the gang would admit it.
“No, I just want to ride.” Calm but firm.
“No way,” said the driver, irritation coloring his inflection.
The man wheeled himself right in front of the bus. Thirty protesters witnessed it. Eighteen in wheelchairs, plus friends and family.
“Get out of here!” the driver yelled, flailing his arms, panic raising his voice. “What the hell are you doing? There’s another bus behind me and you’re blocking the way.”
Wade lifted his arm again, motioning toward the bus at the curb. Eighteen more wheelchairs moved forward. Some people rolled in front of the bus. Others to each side. A few in back of the second bus. There they stopped. Two buses surrounded, immobilized.
“We will ride!” they shouted. “WE WILL RIDE!!”
Cars started stacking up down Colfax and Broadway. The intersection came to a standstill. Diesel fumes got thick. Passengers exited the trapped buses. Most looked bewildered. Their faces revealed their thoughts: What in holy hell is going on?
Disabled people weren’t supposed to go crazy, carry signs, and block buses. They’re supposed to stay indoors, have their food brought on a tray, watch soap operas or something. But what about freedom? Rosa Parks got famous by refusing to go to the back of the bus. Disabled people couldn’t even get on the bus.
Wade searched the bus passengers’ faces for pity, saw little. Some looked red-faced and angry. That was a victory, right there. Inconveniencing the able-bodied would take his people where pity never could.
“Free our people!” the Gang of Nineteen shouted from all sides of the buses. “FREE OUR PEOPLE!!”
Organizing this had been hard, damn hard. And yet, here they are, crushing it.
Police cruisers pulled up, lights flashing red and blue. Ah, now it gets really interesting.
Officers meandered through the wheelchairs, consulted with each other, muttered into their radios. Handcuffs swung from their belts, but none reached for them. Wade stood on the sidewalk.
The protesters started singing, “We shall overcome . . .”
Eventually an officer approached the friends and family. One pointed at Wade. That was fine. He’d told them to.
The officer sauntered over. “What’s going on?” he asked Wade.
“They want accessible buses.”
“RTD has Handi-Ride. They can use that. Tell them.”
“They want all buses accessible, so they can go where they want to go, when they want to go. All buses.”
“They’re blocking traffic.”
“Yes, Officer. That’s the point.”
“Are you in charge, Mr. uh . . .”
“The Rev. Wade Blank. I’m just here to hand out water and help them to the bathroom.”
“Well, they gotta disperse or we’ll arrest them.”
“First, sir, a person who’s severely disabled has the same right as you to pursue his happiness, or hers. And if that means getting arrested in front of a bus, so be it. Second, it’s not going to come to that, is it? You’re not going to arrest them.”
“Because your jail’s not wheelchair accessible.”
(This protest in Denver led directly, by fits and starts, to the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hallucination that begins this chapter is a vision of the signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden in 1990.)
Joan Jacobson began her professional career at a small newspaper in Minnesota before moving to advertising, public relations and freelancing and then to legal writing for a law firm. From there she turned to fiction and nonfiction books. Jacobson is a member of the Denver Woman’s Press Club, History Colorado and the Colorado Authors League.