Protesting in a wheelchair: A time-honored American tradition

Jun 24, 2017 · 3 min read

By Alessandra Ram

Disability rights activists protesting caps to Medicaid are removed from Sen. Mitch McConnell’s in Washington, DC. Credit: AP

The same day Senate Republicans unveiled their long-awaited healthcare bill, at least 60 disability rights advocates assembled in and outside of Mitch McConnell’s office on Capitol Hill. They effectively staged a “die-in” to dramatize the deaths they say will occur if the new law takes effect. Some participants shouted, “I’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid.”

Then came the arrests.

Capitol Hill police arrested 43 activists from ADAPT, a national grassroots organization that advocates for people to engage in nonviolent direct action. Police charged them with “crowding and obstructing.” Many individuals who could not stand or walk on their own were carried out while screaming. Others were zip-tied. The images are hard to forget.

The morning’s events were called a “disgrace” and “horrific.”

“Our lives and liberty shouldn’t be stolen to give a tax break to the wealthy,” said Bruce Darling, an ADAPT organizer who also took part in the DC protest. “That’s truly un-American.”

The GOP’s unpopular, 142-page bill ends the ACA’s mandate that all Americans have health insurance and, most notably, makes deep cuts to Medicaid. Repealing the ACA would hit the elderly and people with disabilities first, and hard, because the current law allows states to opt in to an expansion that covers more people under state Medicaid programs. And Medicaid is the primary source of funding that enables people with disabilities to stay in their own homes rather than institutions. The nursing facilities many people would be forced into as a result of these cuts are much more expensive than community-based services. (And advocating for community-based rather than institutionalized services is a major tenet of disability rights in the U.S.; it helps ensure participation in public life.)

Thursday’s protest, while a sort of last-ditch effort by opponents of the bill, allowed many Americans — and their elected officials—to see who’s directly affected by this bill: the sick, the elderly, low-income people (especially women of color), and anyone living with a disability. Basically, the most vulnerable segments of the population.

Disability rights have long been intertwined with the struggles for civil and women’s rights, and disability rights advocates have a long history of civil disobedience in the U.S. After all, 20% of the U.S. population lives with a disability, and a disproportionate number of them live in poverty.

Some of the disability movement’s foundational protests occurred in 1978 in Denver, Colorado. Disabled residents of Denver were not given adequate access to public transit, despite paying local and state taxes. A group of disabled men and women, or the “Gang of 19” as they were known, protested in front of city buses to protest disenfranchisement. Police didn’t make any arrests at the time for fear of backlash.

However, disability rights protesters have been arrested on Capitol Hill before. Demonstrating in the Capitol is against federal law, and in 1990, more than 100 protesters in wheelchairs were arrested after demanding action on the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Earlier this year, in May, a staggering 83 ADAPT advocates were arrested for protesting in front of the White House. They were calling on President Trump to support the Disability Integration Act.

So arrests at the Capitol aren’t unusual, but what these people were protesting is. As more images and footage surface of Thursday’s ugly arrests, it’s clear why people were shocked. It doesn’t take a hallway full of wheelchairs to make you realize what this bill is: cruel.


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