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When the 'Capitol Crawl' Dramatized the Need for Americans with Disabilities Act

July 24, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

The 1990 protest demonstrated the barriers that inaccessible buildings create for people with disabilities.

On March 13, 1990, over 1,000 people marched from the about her Capitol climb. “I realized these people with disabilities are fighting for their right to be acknowledged and accepted…and I can too, and I want to be a part of that.”

When Keelan-Chaffins showed up to the Capitol Crawl, some organizers weren’t sure it was a good idea for her to climb the steps. This was because she was a child, and also because “they were concerned about what that could do, the image of me climbing the steps, and whether or not it would send a message of pity instead of empowerment,” she says.

ADAPT founder Reverend Wade Blank told her that if she wanted to climb the steps then she should do it, so she got out of her wheelchair and began climbing.

“Even though I was quite young, I realized that as one of the very few kids that got to be involved in this movement…it wasn’t just about myself but it was about them as well,” she says.

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 of 1973 set an important legal precedent for “disability” as a protected category.

The 1990 Capitol Crawl was part of a week of demonstrations in D.C. around the ADA, which sought to provide stronger protections for disability rights than any U.S. law before it. The day after the crawl, police arrested 104 people at an ADAPT protest inside the Capitol rotunda. One of them was Keelan-Chaffins’ mother, Cynthia Keelan.

Disabled citizens crawling up Capitol steps to rally support for Americans with Disabilities Act on March 12, 1990.

“We all pretended like we were going for the tour,” Keelan says. “Once we got everybody up into the Capitol rotunda, then we all sat down or stood there and said we want to meet with the Speaker of the House.”

READ MORE: “‘Good Trouble’: How John Lewis and Other Civil Rights Crusaders Expected Arrests”

The year before in Montreal, police had arrested both Keelan and seven-year-old Keelan-Chaffins while protesting a conference for the American Public Transportation Association. Ironically, the police had to …read more