16 Feb PBS documentary highlights Denver disability activism and John’s litigation efforts on behalf of the movement
Julie Speer and her team at RMPBS have just aired a documentary entitled “Colorado Experience: Gang of 19: ADA Movement.” This hour long piece chronicles the dominant role played by Denver disability activists and their leader and John’s friend, Wade Blank. Wade was the founder of the Atlantis Community and of ADAPT.
John considers it to have been a great privilege to represent Wade, Atlantis and other disabled activists in many legal and protest actions. He sued RTD to make Denver’s entire fleet accessible to people with wheelchairs. Litigation combined with persistent street protests finally resulted in a settlement of that case with RTD agreeing to retrofit over 200 recently acquired buses with lifts and to make all new buses purchased thereafter wheelchair accessible.
The documentary starts with the “Gang of 19” sit-in with 19 disabled protestors capturing a Denver bus at rush hour at a central downtown intersection in July 1978 and keeping it for over 24 hours because the police did not want the bad press associated with arresting people in wheelchairs. They arrested their attendants instead, raising an important equal protection question about how you can have a civil rights movement if you can’t even get arrested. Successful challenges to these discriminatory arrests resulted in dismissal of all cases against the attendants and quickly lead to police routinely arresting disabled people as the movement spread everywhere.
The film covers this extraordinary movement starting with the struggle to get disabled people out of nursing homes and make Denver the most accessible city in the world at that time.
From the Denver model, the movement, under the umbrella of ADAPT and Wade’s continuing work, quickly expanded from Denver to the rest of the nation and culminated its first phase with hundreds of disabled persons abandoning their wheelchairs and attempting to climb the steps to the nation’s capitol. This protest, also organized by Wade Blank, resulted in President Bush coming to the Rotunda and promising to sign the ADA if the protesters would stop.
Out of this same movement came John’s seminal case, Smith v O’Halloran, where he represented members of the Gang of 19 and others in suing both for damages and for meaningful regulation and inspections of nursing homes to increase patient care and quality of life nationwide. The facility where the case started was closed and many of the former nursing home residents were able to purchase their own homes after a multi million dollar class action damages settlement was obtained.
Here is the link to the Colorado Experience documentary on the Gang of 19 by RMPBS:
Since this documentary aired there has been additional publicity about the 40th anniversary of the Gang of 19: