Many nondisabled people were introduced to disability rights activism in 2017 with splashy protests from ADAPT, Housing Works, and other organizations who fought ferociously to defend health care on Capitol Hill. Those protests joined a long and rich history of political engagement on the part of the disability community, but they also highlighted the fact that sustained political action can make a big difference. While the wins on health care were very public, some of the other work accomplished in 2017 was more subtle — but also very important.
On the last day of November, the Democrats announced they would be backing the Disability Integration Act (DIA), a piece of legislation that affirms the right to live in our communities. The DIA has had trouble gaining momentum — 2017 wasn’t the first time it was introduced, but 2017 was a particularly bad year for it, with very partisan politics in Washington making it challenging to pass any disability legislation, despite the fact that disability is very much a bipartisan issue.
So what brought this about?
Stephanie Woodward, an ADAPT activist who was particularly visible in 2017, says their earlier actions laid the groundwork for the DIA announcement. The organization has long been a force for change on Capitol Hill, but in 2017, politicians on both sides of the aisle came to understand what it means when vans loaded with ADAPT activists show up: It’s going to get noisy, and it’s going to get embarrassing.
When ADAPT got wind that Democrats were holding a fundraising event to celebrate the launch of the DNC Disability Council, they decided to invite themselves along. “Maybe not as guests,” says Woodward, “but as…educators outside their event. Educators with large signs, fliers, and chanting.” ADAPT RSVP’d to the Democrats, and in return, they got the promise of a meeting.
In politics, it’s not uncommon for activists and organizers to be fobbed off with a “meeting” that goes nowhere. That’s not what happened with this meeting, though: The Democrats knew better than to tangle with ADAPT. They pushed Democrats to endorse the DIA, and the Democrats ended up doing even more than that. They also spoke out against the subminimum wage and criticized attacks on the ADA, education rights, and access to health care.
ADAPT didn’t stop there. As long as the group was in Washington, organizers stopped by a number of Congressional offices for a little chat, leaning on Democratic members of Congress to sign on to the DIA as cosponsors. Gregg Beratan, another ADAPT activist, said the results were immediate, and gratifying — their trip to the Hill yielded several new sign-ons, with more likely in the works. The party endorsement of the DIA made this process much easier — if your party supports it, why haven’t you signed on?
Finding leverage with the Democrats doesn’t mean ADAPT is done with the Republicans, though. Beratan notes that ADAPT struggled to make headway with Republicans throughout the year, but ADAPT is still working on them; and with the growing weight attached to their work, the group may find at least some GOP members of Congress more receptive. “The entire party isn’t against us,” comments Woodward, and ADAPT intends to leverage that.
The battle for civil rights is far from over and the DIA isn’t a slam dunk, but this is a move in the right direction, and it demonstrates that activism matters — even when individual battles are lost, they build larger momentum for a moment. In 2017, Congress learned to take wheelchair users storming the halls of the Capitol Building seriously, because activists were relentless: As long as Congress kept threatening them, they kept coming, in wave after wave.
Activists will continue applying pressure to Congress in 2018 to push for passage of the DIA, as well as resisting H.R. 620, legislation that would radically undercut the Americans with Disabilities Act. They’ll also be on the ground for the health care fight, and anything else that comes their way.
Direct action, like the work ADAPT does, is critically important for defending civil rights, but not everyone’s able to attend protests in person to make their voices heard. If that’s you, know that there are lots of other ways you can help people build and maintain their movements.
Such actions can cost money, and for those with spare cash, donations are a great way to support activist groups — you can also donate things like miles and hotel points so people can get where they need to go and have a place to sleep when they get there.
Short on cash? That’s okay. One reason ADAPT’s protests this year were so effective is that in response to seeing activism on the Hill, constituents all over the country contacted their representatives to demand action. ADAPT and other activist groups maintain mailing lists, websites, and social media feeds to keep you up to date on their work so that even if the media isn’t on top of it, you can be.
Speaking of the media: Sharing stories and calls to action is also incredibly effective. If a news organization isn’t covering disability activism, contact the editor and ask why not, and encourage friends to do the same. ADAPT proved that disability activism is newsworthy and a matter of public interest in 2017.
Activist groups like the organizations that created media buzz and made headlines in 2017 will be fighting the same battle in 2018 and beyond, and they need all the help you’re able to give.
s.e. smith is a writer and agitator based in Northern California, focusing on social justice, with a particular interest in disability rights, trans issues, and rural subjects. smith’s work has appeared in publications like Pacific Standard, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, In These Times, and Vox. You can follow smith on Twitter @sesmith.