30 years ago, public transportation in Chicago was all but impossible to use if you had a disability. There was need for action and need for change. This was the issue that brought together the Chicago chapter of ADAPT. They sought to show the media, the public and figures of authority the needless barriers faced by people with disabilities so that the disability community could not be ignored. Three decades later, equal access to public transportation is a federally mandated law and Chicago ADAPT is still going strong with an expanded agenda that now concentrates on equal rights to independent living and homecare support.
“I think folks with disabilities have tremendous power and I think the main reason that we have tremendous power is simply because we’re right,” said Mike Ervin, who has been a member of Chicago ADAPT since some of its first organizing meetings. “It’s right that people should be able to use public transit. […] I think when you really put it to people, the vast vast vast majority think it’s right and I think that most politicians know that and they just hope that you’ll be quiet about it and no one will ever know.”
Ervin, who uses a wheelchair, was frustrated by the lack of transportation options prior to joining ADAPT. He had access to an accessible van that required someone else to volunteer to drive him and he later used an early door-to-door transportation program that turned out to be riddled with problems, had far too few vehicles available, and only operated during daytime business hours.
“I’m sitting here figuring out what’s the best way to get around and it never even occurred to me that I had a right to ride buses or that it was even possible,” Ervin said. ADAPT helped show him that accessible public transportation was not only possible, but also necessary. Insufficient access could not be tolerated.
ADAPT, which originated in Denver, Colorado and later branched out throughout the country, initially focused solely on transportation issues and emphasized highly visible direct action campaigns that would attract media attention and disrupt the status quo.
Early Chicago ADAPT actions consisted of interrupting and taking over Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) board meetings. First, ADAPT members simply went to a CTA meeting to present their demands and said they’d come back. After ADAPT’s demands were clearly laid out and noted, their subsequent actions were more dramatic since the CTA board members were ignoring the needs of the disability community.
On one occasion, Ervin said ADAPT members went into a board meeting with noisemakers and said they wouldn’t stop until the board voted on ADAPT’s resolution to order accessible buses. The board members left the room and went into an alternate room. In the alternate room, ADAPT members removed chairs where the seven CTA board members were going to sit and they gathered around the table with their own name plates and declared themselves the “people’s CTA board.” “The guy who declared himself the chairman proposed our resolution and we unanimously voted to put lifts on all the buses.” Ervin said. “And there was always press there, which was one of the reasons why we did it.”
During that time, there was also a lawsuit underway filed with the Illinois Human Rights Commission. The lawsuit – Jones v. CTA - proposed that hindering access to public transportation is a violation of human rights. ADAPT members had a deep investment in the outcome of the decision and members of ADAPT were listed as named plaintiffs. ADAPT organized many more actions, which Ervin said brought much wider coverage to both the ongoing lawsuit and the disability rights movement overall.
Though the lawsuit stalled for a number of years, a decision was finally made on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of 1988. The decision required the CTA to add accessible mainline buses to its fleet.
ADAPT members were involved in negotiations with both the CTA and the Regional Transit Authority (RTA). They reached a tentative agreement that the next order of buses in the CTA fleet would be accessible.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which all branches of ADAPT were advocating for on a national level, was also going through the legislative process in Congress and ADAPT members hoped the ADA would pass and supersede any regional policies. Indeed, the ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990 and established even more comprehensive public transit standards across the United States.
After the passage of the ADA, Chicago ADAPT determined that housing and deinstitutionalization would be the next area of focus (the ADA doesn’t specifically address these issues). Currently, Chicago ADAPT places housing and homecare support as its top priority and the organization is advocating for the Community Integration Act – a newly proposed initiative that would pick up where the ADA left off and federally solidify the right to live independently.
Curtis Harris is a more recent member of ADAPT and is helping to lead the organization on new initiatives. “[ADAPT] has been a bonding experience,” Harris said. “It’s like a family.”
Harris, who has Asperger syndrome, joined ADAPT in 2007 and has been an officer since 2011. He is a co-coordinator for Chicago ADAPT who plans national action trips and talks to policy makers. He has seen progress in the past seven years, but he is eager to keep working and advocating for people who have disabilities.
“Currently we have a goal to get the state to sign on to the Community First Choice Option, which will free money for people with disabilities to live in the community,” Harris said. “It will also remove thousands of people from the PUNS [Priority of Urgent Needs Services] waiting list for people with developmental disabilities. They’ve been on the waiting list for years and it’s too long. People die waiting to come off the list; their caregivers die waiting to come off the list.” The Community First Choice Option is a state-by-state incentive written into the Affordable Care Act. Illinois still has not opted into this option.
Harris said the upcoming ADAPT 30th anniversary event will have lots to offer. “We’re going to look back on the history of ADAPT and we’re going to have a fundraising silent auction.” Harris said. “We’ll invite former ADAPT members to share their stories of what they did from the ‘80s when they fought for accessible transportation, [also] to fight for home services programs and to remove people from nursing homes and institutions.”
Additionally, there will be food, drinks and a short film called “Agents of Revolution” that compiles 30 years of highlights from Chicago ADAPT’s history.
Tickets are$30 for unemployed attendees, $50 for employed attendees and $60 for unreserved tickets on the day of the event. The funds raised at the celebration will help finance national actions and ensure that ADAPT can keep advocating for disability progress.
“I think that history in the United States and around the world shows that when people do get together, if they’re persistent and resolute enough, that they win,” Ervin said. “That’s what justice is.”
For tickets or other queries related to the event contact Scott Nance via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at 773-793-6969.