On March 13, 1990, more than 1,000 people marched from the White House to the United States Capitol to demand that Congress pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Once there, about sixty of them abandoned their wheelchairs and other mobility aids and climbed the steps of the Capitol.
The “Capitol Crawl”, as it is called, was a physical demonstration of the impact of inaccessible architecture on people with disabilities. He also underscored the urgency behind the need to pass the ADA, which President George HW Bush enacted on July 26, 1990.
Eight-year-old activist joins the crawl
The youngest person to climb the steps that day was eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, who had already been protesting for two years. At six, she attended her first protest in Phoenix to advocate for accessible buses with ADAPT, the same disability rights group that helped organize the 1990 march in DC.
“For me, at six, it was the first time I saw people with disabilities like me fighting for their rights,” says Keelan-Chaffins, who continued his activist work and helped develop the book for children. All the way to the top about his rise to the Capitol. “I realized that these disabled people are fighting for their right to be recognized and accepted… and so can I, and I want to be a part of it.”
When Keelan-Chaffins showed up at the Capitol Crawl, some organizers weren’t sure it was a good idea for her to climb the steps. It was because she was a child, and also because “they were concerned about what it might do, the image of me climbing the stairs, and whether or not that would send a message of pity instead of empowerment.” “, she says.
Reverend Wade Blank, Founder of ADAPT, told her that if she wanted to climb the stairs she would have to, so she got out of her wheelchair and started to climb.
“Even though I was quite young, I realized that as one of the very few kids to get involved in this movement… it wasn’t just about me but also them,” says -she.
Legislative victories before the ADA
Disability rights groups have existed in the United States since at least the 19th century. In the decades leading up to the ADA, activists won legislative victories, gaining access to education, housing, transportation, and federal buildings. In particular, the Rehabilitation Act 1973 created an important legal precedent for “disability” as a protected category.
The 1990 Capitol Crawl was part of a week of protests in Washington around the ADA, which sought to provide stronger protections for the rights of people with disabilities than any US law before it. The day after the exploration, police arrested 104 people during an ADAPT protest inside the Capitol Rotunda. One of them was Keelan-Chaffins’ mother, Cynthia Keelan.
“We all pretended we were going for the tour,” Keelan says. “After everyone entered the Capitol Rotunda, we all sat down or just stood there and said we wanted to meet with the Speaker of the House.
READ MORE: “‘Good Trouble’: How John Lewis and Other Civil Rights Defenders Expected Arrests”
The previous year in Montreal, police arrested seven-year-old Keelan and Keelan-Chaffins as they protested a conference for the American Public Transportation Association. Ironically, the police had to procure accessible school buses to transport the arrested protesters as they did not have accessible paddywagons.
Due to this experience, Keelan ensured that Keelan-Chaffins and her younger sister, Kailee Keelan, were safe on the day of the arrests at the Capitol Rotunda. “But I wanted my mother to be arrested on my behalf,” says Keelan-Chaffins. “Kailee and I asked mom to get arrested.
The Legacy of Exploring the Capitol
Although journalists and photographers covered the Capitol Crawl – especially the rise of Keelan-Chaffins – it did not receive huge media attention at the time. Even so, it marked an important event in the history of disability rights.
“This is a dramatic event,” says Lennard J. Davis, professor of English, disability studies and medical education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Empowered America’s Largest Minority. “You can’t watch this without being well aware of the difficulties people with disabilities face when they face obstacles like stairs.”
“This is definitely seen as a very important moment in disability rights activism,” says Aimi Hamraie, professor of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University and author of Building access: universal design and disability policy.
“One of the reasons is that it’s part of a history and lineage of disability activists who demonstrate in public space and use disability, including disabled bodies and assistive technology, to show that the built environment is inaccessible, ”says Hamraie. “So there is a longer history of this practice going back at least to the 1950s, if not earlier.”
Disability activism didn’t start with ADA, and it didn’t end with it either. The 2008 ADA Amendments Act aimed to expand the original law, further protecting people with disabilities. In 2017, disability rights organizations like ADAPT staged well-publicized protests against cuts to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. These are the protests in which police removed protesters from their wheelchairs and led them out of federal buildings on Capitol Hill, the same spot where activists had climbed steps to demand the passage of the ADA nearly 30 years ago.