July 5 and 6, 1978, are commonly accepted as the beginning of the Disability Rights Movement. On those days 42 years ago, 19 courageous individualsblocked the busy intersection of Broadway and Colfax in downtown Denver.
The civil disobedience by the "Gang of 19" shed national light on the need for transportation equity and began a movement that ultimately led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
The anniversary is usually marked by a march and rally organized by Atlantis ADAPT – but not this year due to COVID-19.
Dawn Russell, an organizer for the nonprofit Atlantis Community Inc., and its sister advocacy group ADAPT, says that even though transportation was one of the Gang of 19’s goals, "the other goal was to free people from institutions.” Transportation across the nation has largely conformed to ADA regulations, but independent living is still not a reality for many individuals living with a disability, Russell said.
“People in nursing homes are still stuck right where they are. I wish there was more outrage,” Russell laments.
COVID-19 has been especially deadly for individuals living with disabilities, and Russell says that this was an issue even before COVID, referring to a late 2018 incident where 11 children died at a pediatric care facility in New Jersey from an adenovirus.
Russell participated in a “Funeral March” organized by Atlantis ADAPT and ADAPT chapters across the country on June 22, hoping to bring attention to the 50,000 people who have died in nursing facilities and other long-term care institutions due to COVID-19.
The March began at the site of the Gang of 19’s protest (the intersection of Colfax and Broadway) and was held on the 21st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Olmstead Decision, a ruling that people with disabilities have a right to live in the most integrated setting possible.
Russell says that there’s “lots of work to be done in a typical year, but right now it’s about saving lives.”
ADAPT’s current legislative work was first proposed by U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in the 1990s and they have been lobbying for it ever since. The Disability Integration Act is closer than it’s ever been, but according to Russell it has been “stuck at 237 members of the House supporting it since last summer.”
She explains that “they are waiting on a hearing from Energy and Commerce (committees) and are only 13 members away from having support of the Senate. It is a bipartisan bill that would give everyone in this country the right to live and receive services in their own homes.”
Russell reflects on the work that began during the civil rights movement and what they are still working on today: “No matter if it was 1978 or 2020, we’re working hard to honor what The Gang of 19 did. We hope that we’re honoring that by fighting all of these decades later.”
Dawn Russell is featured in a 2018 Colorado Experience documentary on the Gang of 19.