FREE OUR PEOPLE: Disability Advocates Make Their Voices Heard
Dawn Russell doesn’t initially strike you as the type of person you would expect to have been arrested over 25 times with charges ranging from trespassing to disturbing the peace. She is an organizer with ADAPT. ADAPT will say they use civil disobedience and direct action to advocate for people with disabilities, but these feel like too big of words for me.
Basically, they are badasses literally willing to throw themselves under a bus for their voices to be heard. And what are they shouting about? The first ADAPT actions happened around issues of wheelchair access on public transit in Denver in the late ’70s. People with disabilities were stranded in nursing homes, an issue that persists to this day, and people were further isolated because the bus that swung by their place wasn’t wheelchair accessible. The activists, who became known as the “Gang of 19,” laid themselves in the path of an R.T.D. bus and an organization was born.
ADAPT launches two national actions a year. Their modus operandi is to flood a room, a meeting or an office of government with people in wheelchairs. Their intent is to remain until their demands are met. “It’s the real fucking deal,” says Dawn. This often leads to arrests. “I didn’t think my sweet David [her recently passed husband] was paying attention to how many arrests I had. When I got out of jail after an action in Chicago, and we were in real jail there, and I remember getting out and he’s standing there with flowers and balloons and a big sign that read Happy 25th.”
Dawn Russell in police custody, again.
Dawn joined ADAPT in 1996 in Memphis and when pressed for some of her favorite recollections from ADAPT actions, “I’ve gotta calm down enough to tell you,” the fervent protestor immediately comes out in her. “We were at the conference of Mayors in D.C. We had taken over this guy’s office and we were trying to get his staff to contact him. The staff slipped out the back door. Often we’re able to lock it all down, and they can’t get out. But this day they all got out. And we were saying we’ve got a whole bunch of people in this office and we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do. Low and behold, at five in the evening, the guy’s office that we were in, his office phone started ringing, and ADAPT answers the phone, ‘Hello, ADAPT speaking.’ and so it was the guy whose office we were in and we got a meeting right there.”
President Obama was about to hold a press conference when he heard that ADAPT was marching on the White House. According to Dawn, “I was standing next to a fellow ADAPT organizer when he got a call from inside the White House saying that they would give ADAPT what they want as long as they didn’t roll on the White House and ruin what was a monumental moment for them. I think about it often, if he had not been about to hold a press conference while we were threatening to roll would we have really gotten what we needed? I call that ADAPT Magic.”
Dawn feels she owes more to the organization than it does to her. “It has allowed me to do so much in my life. To meet with President Obama and President Clinton. We were front row for the signing of The Affordable Care Act. But has there been consequences for doing ADAPT things? Only good.” She ends our conversation by screaming, “Free our people!”
Originally published at Dope Magazine.