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Like the civil rights movement, disability rights movement persists

On Monday, we will celebrate the life and work of one of the most well-known and influential leaders of the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of a group of leaders of the Black civil rights movement of the 1960s that set the stage for how we work for civil rights today.

The civil rights movement also served as the foundation and inspiration for other movements, including the disability rights movement. There are those who believe that without the inspiration of the successes achieved by Black activists in the civil rights movement, the disability rights movement might never have happened, or would have started much later.

The relationship isn’t accidental. Many of the Black civil rights activists had disabilities themselves and could see that even if they achieved inclusion and justice as a Black person, they would still face legal and societal discrimination as a person with a disability. Other disabled activists also witnessed the progress being made in the Black community and adopted the strategies that were bringing such success.

The disability rights movement developed in the 1960s and ’70s, using many of the same techniques and strategies practiced by the civil rights movement. The core of the movement was peaceful protest and civil disobedience. Become enough of a nuisance to force policymakers to the table.

One of my favorite examples is a protest that happened right here in Colorado. In July 1978, a group of disabled protesters, later called the Gang of 19, disrupted the entire Denver bus system by occupying the corner of Lomax and Broadway. Chanting “we will ride,” they blocked the street for 24 hours. Finally, representatives of the Regional Transportation District sat down with them and created a plan for adding accessible buses.

Protests such as these occurred across the nation and in Washington, D.C. This included the famous Capitol Crawl in March 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was languishing in the political process. During a march on the Capitol, a group of activists cast aside their wheelchairs and dragged themselves up the steps of the Capitol. This provided a dramatic demonstration of the accessibility barriers that people with disabilities experience every day.

The ADA was signed into law four months later.

Like the civil rights movement, the disability rights movement persists. Even with the increased legal protections of the ADA and other legislation, people with disabilities still face barriers in accessing jobs, housing, education, and services. They face barriers to voting and fully accessing the legal system. They are still criminalized unjustly and often fear for their own physical and mental safety. They have their civil rights stripped away by unnecessary guardianships and conservatorships.

So, the work continues. National ADAPT is one of the best-known grassroots organizations bringing together disabled activists across the nation to continue the fight. The nonviolent direct action techniques they use today are practically identical to those used by Dr. King and his associates back in the 1960s.

I like to think he’d be proud.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.