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July 01, 2007

Human Rights Heroes: Relentless Riders: ADAPT

by Susan Ann Silverstein

Almost thirty years ago, disabled activists, along with the Reverend Wade Blank, held hostage a public transit bus in Denver, Colorado. The activists were frustrated because the lack of lifts on buses prevented them from integrating into the community. Despite the fact that the 1970 Urban Mass Transit Act had required new mass transit vehicles to be equipped with wheelchair lifts, actions by the American Public Transit Association ensured that none were actually so equipped. Out of the successful Denver action, which resulted in the city retrofitting 250 buses, American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) was born.

Members of ADAPT saw themselves as extending the example that Rosa Parks had provided in catalyzing the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to end racial segregation. Michael Auburger, one of ADAPT’s key leaders, said about Rosa Parks: “Her genius was that she saw the bus as the great integrator: it took you to work, it took you to play, it took you to places that were never before seen.” Charles Wilson, WASH. POST SUNDAY OUTLOOK, Oct. 30, 2005, at B01. In Chicago in 1984, people with disabilities blocked a downtown street to protest the Chicago Transit Authority’s purchase of 363 new public buses without wheelchair lifts; every protester wore a name tag that said “My name is Rosa Parks.”

For the next seventeen years, ADAPT conducted a relentless campaign to ensure that buses would be equipped with wheelchair lifts. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people protested across the nation at every American Public Transit Association convention, in Washington, and at Greyhound stations. They carried signs, patched together personal-care services, and they called attention to their cause. They also chained their wheelchairs to buses, blocked traffic, and, as a result, were arrested. They used the panoply of protest and civil disobedience tools that frustrated and dedicated and patriotic Americans have always used. Their protests culminated with an unforgettable crawl up the steps of U.S. Capitol and the arrest of over half of the two hundred ADAPT members, led by Bob Kafka, the Texas ADAPT cofounder with Stephanie Thomas. Many credit this action with being the final push that was needed to energize the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In one short generation, people with disabilities transformed themselves from a community perceived as passive victims needing charity to an active social movement fighting for civil rights, equal justice, and opportunity. In serving the needs of the disability community, ADAPT has also served as heroes for all who care about public transportation, demanding reliability, compliance with the law, and accountability. ADAPT is now an acronym for American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today and fights heroically for people with disabilities to enjoy lives of freedom and dignity in the community rather than in institutions. But some battles are never over; local ADAPT chapters still battle for lifts on buses, reliable paratransit, and accessible sidewalks, and leaders like Bruce Darling and Debra Bonomo, and countless others, continue to be transportation heroes..

Susan Ann Silverstein

Susan Ann Silverstein has been a poverty and civil rights lawyer for twenty-five years and is currently a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation.