How the “Capitol Crawl” Galvanized Congress Into Passing a Landmark Civil Rights Bill

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the Capitol Crawl.

By Gabe Sanders.


Image captured at protest on March 12, 1990.[1]

Sometimes, the fight for civil rights is an 83-step process. Such was the case for disability rights activists in March of 1990, when delays in Congressional action on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were stalling the overdue passage of a landmark bill to protect individuals with visible and invisible disabilities.

Between 1970 and 1990, “the attitude of those with disabilities [had] shifted from being passive recipients of institutional largess and paternalism to demanding a full role in society.”[2] Additionally, a wave of technological and medical advances was beginning to improve the longevity, mobility, and self-sufficiency of those living with severe disabilities. However, as recognized by Dr. Frank Bowe—a renowned deaf scholar of disability studies—these scientific breakthroughs were only valuable insofar as they were coupled with social progress in the direction of equity. Dr. Bowe aptly summed up this discrepancy with one simple question: “[W]e have this marvelous technology, but if nobody’s going to hire you, what’s the point?”[3]

The ADA seemed to answer Dr. Bowe’s question and alleviate justified concerns by promising to be “a comprehensive civil rights bill that extend[ed] to physically and mentally disabled individuals the same protections against biased treatment in employment, transportation and public accommodations.”[4] In order to fulfill this integrative ambition, the legislation “would require that all new buildings and services that serve the general public accommodate the disabled.”[5] Yet, despite the Senate having passed the ADA with bipartisan support—including from then-President George H. W. Bush—six months earlier, the bill was “moving at glacial speed through four House committees.”[6] These delays served as the impetus behind the March 12, 1990 “Wheels for Justice March,” which culminated in the Capitol Crawl.

A pivotal role in organizing the demonstration was played by a grassroots disability rights organization called ADAPT. Co-founded by Reverend Wade Blank, ADAPT had become a formidable force by “using tactics of civil disobedience”[7] to campaign for wheelchair accessibility. The acronym ADAPT initially stood for American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit but would later accompany an expansion of mission statement with a change in significance: American Disabled Attendant Programs Today. Equipped with the tools of nonviolent resistance, ADAPT had “organized more than 20 protest actions in nearly every major US city” between “1983 and 1990 alone.”[8] Although its advocacy had contributed to notable successes, including the passage of a 1970 Urban Mass Transit law and ratification of Rehabilitation Act Section 504,[9] the sluggishness of Congressional action on the ADA was hindering the swift implementation of transit and other access regulations created by those legislation. Additionally, prolonged were the conditions of pre-ADA America, which an activist and self-described “brown, disabled immigrant, [and] queer mother,” Maria Palacios, equated with being “denied access to life.”[10]

By March 12, the patience of ADAPT leadership and people across the country had run out. Over 600 advocates with and without disabilities gathered in Washington DC, where they either marched or wheeled themselves to the base of the 83 marble steps on the Capitol building’s West Front.

Protestors assemble and convoy toward the U.S. Capitol.[11]

After ADAPT national leader Mike Auberger delivered a speech proclaiming that they would “‘not permit these steps to continue to be a barrier to prevent [them] from the equality that is rightfully ours,’”[12] protestors with physical disabilities propelled themselves from their wheelchairs and began crawling up the steps. In hand, during their symbolic ascent, was the Declaration of Independence, which they delivered to Congress as a reminder of the country’s founding principles. Among those climbing, one step at a time, was an eight-year-old with cerebral palsy named Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, who promised, “I’ll take all night if I have to!”[13]

Eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins ascends the Capitol steps, determined to summit the Hill.[14]

This profound exhibition of resilience simultaneously united “a cohesive disability movement” and underscored “the importance of the ADA to the estimated 43 million people with disabilities in the United States.”[15]

The following day, roughly 150 members and affiliates of ADAPT met with House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and other Congressional leaders at the Rotunda to again “demand quick action on the [ADA].”[16] Congressman Foley’s refusal to commit to an exact date of passage was unjust yet far from unexpected. Expressing a similar sentiment to that of the late Dr. King—“justice too long delayed is justice denied”—the group responded by staging another demonstration, this time within the Capitol building in defiance of Federal law.

Chaining their wheelchairs together as they “chant[ed], ‘Access is a civil right!’ and ‘The people united will never be defeated!’” the protestors “intended to be arrested” and thereby garner national media coverage.[17] Soon, the Rotunda had been cleared of tourists by Capitol police in riot gear, who wielded “large chain cutters and acetylene torches.”[18] Over the course of two hours, officers severed the chains linking the activists and wheeled them from the building, arresting a total of 104. Wade Blank, a leader of the demonstration, explicitly cited the Civil and Women’s Rights Movements, explaining to the New York Times: “We’re taking the strategies of the 60’s that helped get rights for black and brown people and women, and using them for people with disabilities.”[19]

Following these events, the speed with which the ADA moved through Congress increased exponentially, and on July 26, 1990, the ADA was signed into law by President Bush. Like the movement itself, the bill’s language was “[m]odeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”[20] The ADA, at long last, would specifically prohibit disability-based discrimination in order to “guarantee[] that people with disabilities have the same opportunities … to participate in the mainstream of American life—to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services.”[21]

Near the time of its passage, Director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Pat Wright, who is legally blind, acknowledged that ‘[y]ou can’t legislate attitudes,” but insisted that “the attitudinal barriers will drop the more disabled people are employed, the more they can be seen on the street.”[22] Wright’s ultimate goal, and the goal of the movement, was to be “not just a silent minority, but full participating members of society.”[23] In some ways, this objective was realized. Through audacious demonstrations and vocal advocacy, people with disabilities have enabled themselves to make significant strides in the workforce, as well as the political, educational, and legal spheres. However, to this day, disabilities remain heavily stigmatized, allowing the social exclusion and persecution of those afflicted to endure in spite of ADA regulations prohibiting overt discrimination. In fact, many Capitol Crawlers and their allies share an acute understanding that socially, “very little has changed.”[24]

Spurred by the relentless pressure of activists, the passage of the ADA had turned a stepping stone into an access ramp—one that reduced numerous barriers but has proven so steep that the climb toward equity and inclusion continues more than 30 years later.

The climb continues.[25]

[1] LACDMH Blog, “Capitol Crawl to Access for All,” Department of Mental Health, March 29, 2022.

[2] Steven A. Holmes, “THE NATION; The Disabled Find a Voice, And Make Sure It Is Heard,” The New York Times, March 18, 1990, sec. Week in Review.

[3] Holmes.

[4] Holmes.

[5] Steven A. Holmes and Special To the New York Times, “DISABLED PROTEST AND ARE ARRESTED,” The New York Times, March 14, 1990, sec. U.S.

[6] Holmes and Times.

[7] Gary L. Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, 2006), 35.

[8] Albrecht, 35.

[9] Albrecht, 35.

[10] “‘Capitol Crawl’ Participant Recounts Defining Moment in Disability Rights – and Where ADA Has Fallen Short,” Texas Standard (blog), accessed August 23, 2022.

[11] The Ability Center, “A Look Back – Capitol Crawl – The Ability Center,” accessed August 31, 2022.

[12] Albrecht, Encyclopedia of Disability, 35.

[13] Commemorating 30 Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act | NowThis, 2020.

[14] A. B. C. News, “On 30th Anniversary of Disability Civil Rights Protest, Advocates Push for More,” ABC News, accessed August 31, 2022.

[15] Yahya R. Kamalipour and Theresa Carilli, Cultural Diversity and the U.S. Media (SUNY Press, 1998), 90.

[16] Holmes and Times, “DISABLED PROTEST AND ARE ARRESTED.”

[17] Holmes and Times.

[18] Holmes and Times.

[19] Holmes and Times.

[20]Introduction to the ADA,” accessed August 23, 2022.

[21]Introduction to the ADA.”

[22] Holmes, “THE NATION; The Disabled Find a Voice, And Make Sure It Is Heard.”

[23] Holmes.

[24] “‘Capitol Crawl’ Participant Recounts Defining Moment in Disability Rights – and Where ADA Has Fallen Short.”

[25]The Capitol Crawl,” issuu, accessed August 31, 2022.