Meet the Disabled People Protesting for Health Care

By now, you’ve probably seen the now-iconic photographs of disabled people being dragged out of Mitch McConnell’s office by law enforcement officers responding to a civil disobedience action coordinated by ADAPT, a disability rights organization with a national chapter and independent grassroots chapters across the country, and involving over 60 activists.

The images have shocked the country — which was exactly the response ADAPT activists wanted, because the disability community has been putting their bodies on the line for health care for decades.

But as the images get shared around, some important things are being erased, starting with the identities of the people in those photographs and why they’re there. Take the picture of a curly-haired woman sitting in a hot pink wheelchair with her hands bound behind her in painful zip ties. That’s Stephanie Woodward, an attorney and disability rights activist who works with the Center for Disability Rights as their Director for Advocacy. That photo? Not actually the only time she’s been arrested.

Civil disobedience actions like this one are nothing new for disability rights activists, but historically, the media hasn’t covered them very well. National ADAPT, the group responsible for the action at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, has been around in various forms since the 1970s. It’s a disability rights group led by disabled people, for disabled people, run on a grassroots basis.

It started as part of the deinstitutionalization movement fighting to get disabled people out of nursing homes, and delved into fighting for access on public transit in the 1980s. The group was also instrumental in the protests that led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, including the famous “Capitol Crawl,” in which disability rights activists transferred out of their wheelchairs to the Capitol steps and dragged themselves to the top.

ADAPT chapters have been highly active in the 2000s with the fight to protect access to Medicaid. That’s why ADAPT is taking over not just offices in Washington, but around the country. In Denver, Colo., ADAPT protesters occupied Senator Cory Gardner’s office. In Rochester, N.Y., protesters swarmed a local GOP office and were arrested. In Orlando, Fla., ADAPT protesters were refused access to Senator Marco Rubio’s office — staffers may have been wary after May’s die-in. Other protesters were arrested in Reno, Nev. ADAPTers showed up in Kansas and Utah…and the list goes on.

ADAPT activists are worried about access to health care as a whole, but activists are particularly concerned by threatened changes to Medicaid, a venerable entitlement program that provides disabled people not just with health care, but also with the tools they need to live in their communities. Medicaid pays for personal attendants, wheelchairs, medical supplies and other needs, under a system known as Home and Community-Based Services.

Disabled people argue that they want to live out in their communities, not trapped in nursing homes, and the Supreme Court agreed in 1999 with a groundbreaking legal case. It’s also more cost effective to provide HCBS. Here’s the catch, though: Medicaid is required to cover nursing home care, but not HCBS — and when the cuts start coming, disability rights activists fear that their freedom may be on the line, with Medicaid forcing them into nursing homes if they want care.

The group’s slogan is “free our people,” and one of their popular chants is “our homes, not nursing homes!” For many, this is a life or death fight with serious potential consequences in a landscape that’s very hostile to disabled people.

ADAPT activists come from a range of backgrounds, but they all bring one thing: A cheerful willingness to be arrested, tapping deep into a long tradition of nonviolent disobedience. Those accessible police vans you’re seeing in media coverage? They exist in part because of ADAPT’s advocacy work — in some parts of the country, police have no choice but to process and release protesters on site because they can’t transport them to jail.

If you’re interested in learning more about the individuals involved in these actions, follow @NationalADAPT on Twitter, or the #ADAPTandRESIST hashtag. Both have a wealth of information about actions across the country, including upcoming events, and they can help you put names and faces to the people you’re seeing in the media. If you’re interested in supporting an ADAPT action, you can also get more information from national and local chapters.

A final note, and it’s something ADAPTers themselves stress: Your response to these protests shouldn’t be shock and surprise that “even disabled people” are protesting or that police have crossed the line by arresting members of the disability community. Disability activism and protest is nothing new — it’s just that now, even nondisabled people are paying attention, with so much on the line. Neither are police arrests of disabled people and others involved in nonviolent civil disobedience, but what does cross the line is police brutality, including killings, which disproportionately affect disabled people and people of color, two groups with considerable overlap.

Photo credit: Justice Ender

36 comments

Marie W
Marie W7 months ago

thank you for sharing

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Philippa Powers
Philippa Powersabout a year ago

Thanks.

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Clare O
Clare Oabout a year ago

Some would say that busy working people are not able to take the time away from jobs to protest all day like this. So in a sense the people with disabilities are protesting on behalf of everyone.

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Clare O
Clare Oabout a year ago

Very strange. When people with disabilities show up at our government's base or get in the media on front pages, they are treated with respect.

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heather g
heather gabout a year ago

Thank you for Canada.

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Julie D
Julie Dabout a year ago

This along with the atrocious treatment of the Water Protectors at the DAPL show what a Fascist atmosphere we are living in at the present. It is beyond disgusting, infuriating, frightening and unacceptable.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a year ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a year ago

Noted.

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Margie F
Margie Fabout a year ago

Very sad.

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Debbi -
Debbi -about a year ago

The disabled who are demonstrating, meeting their senators, demanding answers have my appreciation, admiration and praise. I hope they can continue until McConnell's killing bill is actually dead. I went to Senator Wyden's Town Hall meeting held here this weekend. It was inspirational. He and Senator Merkley are working against trump and the republican's detrimental plans. There is hope that moderate republicans will work with democrats to get a better healthcare plan that will actually help people, not leave them to die with no health care available to them. Yes, Anne, what trump, McConnell and a number of republicans are trying to do is shameful and deplorable.

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