Receiving the Torch

New recruit learns old techniques at ADAPT’s organizer training in Chicago This summer I joined ten other young disabled activists […]

New recruit learns old techniques at ADAPT’s organizer training in Chicago

This summer I joined ten other young disabled activists in Chicago to learn how we could carry on the traditions of ADAPT.

We learned that ADAPT was started 25 years ago by a “Gang of Nineteen,” young people with disabilities in Denver who took to the streets in their fight for accessible public transportation. When endless meetings and negotiations had resulted in little progress, they barricaded one of the inaccessible city buses in order to expose the injustice of unequal access to transportation. Their overnight stay on the street led to the creation of the nationwide network of disability activists called ADAPT (American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit). ADAPT fought for accessible public transit, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and is now fighting for safe, affordable, accessible, integrating housing for all people with disabilities.

After three days together in a windowless conference room learning about all of the community organizing and direct action techniques that ADAPT has developed over the last 25 years, we put what we learned into action. We decided we would target a Mexican restaurant, El Norte, and a nail salon, Chan’s Nails, that were right across the street from where we were meeting. Both businesses had a step that made their front entrance inaccessible.

We arrived at El Norte and Chan’s at about 11a.m. Monday morning with a list of demands for each business. They were each to have a ramp installed to their front entrance within two weeks. When our demands were not immediately signed, we started chanting. One of our favorite chants was targeted at the nail salon, “Gimps are hot! Crips are sexy! We want access too!” Before long we broke out the chips and salsa. If we couldn’t eat inside the restaurant we’d eat outside! Promises to send the landlord to talk to us were made, but when he didn’t show up we blocked the front entrances to each business.

We handed a copy of our press release to any passerby who would take one and received a mixed reaction. Some people told us they supported what we were doing, some seemed shocked and confused, and some people were very angry that they couldn’t get to their burritos or nail appointments. As people yelled at us or tried to break through our barricades, we learned how being surrounded by our community can help us to stand up to things we might never be able to face alone.

As the negotiation process progressed we saw the power of organized people to make an impact. The owner of El Norte started out the day blaming us for hurting his business. After hearing stories, in Spanish, from disabled Latinos and Latinas and watching people being turned away from his business with our press release in their hands, he said that he realized that he was hurting his own business—and signed our demands.

After settling with El Norte we directed all of our people power toward Chan’s Nails. During our negotiations, we learned that there was an accessible customer entrance on the other side of the building. Just as we were considering changing our demands, a police officer arrived on the scene (we had been on the sidewalk for about two hours). The cop flip-flopped between pretending to be our buddy (when he agreed with our decisions) and threatening to arrest us (when we exercised our power). We allowed the officer to enter the nail salon and speak with the owner, and after some further discussion we decided to change our demand for a ramp to a demand for a sign on the front door directing people to the accessible entrance. The salon posted a handwritten sign before we left and agreed to ask the landlord to post a more permanent sign. While this result did not meet our initial demand, we decided that we could live with it. We made the decision to end our action and marched back across the street chanting, “The people united will never be defeated!”

After arriving back in our familiar conference room, we spent some time reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work, and on what we learned from the action. Then we learned about another ADAPT tradition … CELEBRATION! We partied, we laughed, we cried, we debated, and we stayed up late because we knew that we’d all be parting ways the next morning.

In the weeks since this action, our learning has not stopped. We’ve kept in contact through e-mail and worked together to make sure that the demands that were agreed to were met. Even though there was a lot of finger pointing between the businesses, the landlord, and even the city; four weeks after the action we received an e-mail with pictures of a new cement ramp drying in front of El Norte!

Did we change the world? Not yet. But we did make a change. I’ve got a picture of that ramp hanging right over my desk. Every time I get discouraged and doubtful that things will ever change, I can look at that ramp and say: “We did that. Together.”

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