Remembering the ‘Capitol Crawl’

Residents, government, advocates join to celebrate anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published July 21, 2015

METRO DETROIT — This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.

It might seem like common sense to ensure that people with disabilities have access to businesses, employment, transportation, government facilities and other everyday amenities. But making that common sense the law of the land was a long, uphill battle. Or, if you ask political advocate Elizabeth Bauer, who joined the fight for the ADA, it was more of an uphill crawl.

“Even with all of our nice legislation — walking room to room — and all of our thoughtful letters and visits, this Congress didn’t want to pass this law. A lot of businesses felt it was going to cost them to accommodate people with disabilities,” recalled Bauer, of Ferndale. “It was the advocates with physical disabilities who made the difference. They went to (Washington, D.C.) and got out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the steps of the nation’s Capitol.”

The event, known as the “Capitol Crawl,” was an image that legislators couldn’t ignore, Bauer said. She had fought since the 1960s to legally protect the rights of people with disabilities, and with that heroic display, she said, lawmakers simply couldn’t go back to their constituents without action.

The ADA wasn’t the first attempt to guarantee rights to citizens with disabilities. Bauer was one of those who worked to promote what would become the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 504, which requires all federally funded programs to be accessible to those with disabilities.

That was followed up by the Fair Housing Act of 1988. Though the legislation wasn’t intended originally to protect those with disabilities, the law preventing discrimination in housing based on age, race, gender and other factors was tweaked to include protections for people with disabilities.

The next and final fight was the toughest, Bauer recalled. Making the ADA happen was an exercise in determination for herself and the lawmakers who supported it.

“Working with Mr. (John) Dingell’s staff throughout that period, leading up to 1990, he held strong and didn’t take out anybody,” she said. “This law is just absolutely fabulous, and I give him all the credit for standing firm when he could’ve gotten it off the agenda.”

It seems the longtime Michigan state representative thought highly of Bauer, too. When President Bush signed the ADA into law, he distributed 27 pens that he used to sign the bill to key players in its creation. Dingell received one of those prized pens, which he then passed along to Bauer.

Since the ADA’s inception, countless individuals have benefited with access to buildings, telecommunication accommodations, job and housing security, and more.

This month, many institutions are celebrating the milestone that has improved outcomes for so many, including the Oakland County Community Mental Health Authority.

“Milestones in advocacy such as the Americans with Disabilities Act deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated throughout our community and across the country,” said OCCMHA Executive Director and CEO Willie Brooks in a prepared statement. “They serve as important reminders to each of us that all people have the right to pursue their dreams and goals, including those who have a developmental disability, mental illness or substance use disorder.”

The anniversary hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Fraser First Booster Club. The group has been working for more than a decade to build a barrier-free playground at McKinley Park. After years of struggling and fundraising, FFBC President Vania Apps said the light at the end of the tunnel is finally shining through.

“It’s kind of exciting for us to think that this is really more than just a playground park. It’s going to be a place to bring the entire family, and they’ll all have something to do,” said Apps.

About $200,000 worth of fundraising is still needed to complete the park’s play structure, which is expected to cater to little ones and parents with physical and developmental disabilities. From children with sensory issues to those who use a wheelchair, Apps said, there will be something for everyone.

“In surveys, we found out so many kids with special needs don’t even think about going to an outdoor park because they can’t access it. And their obesity rates in that community are going up because of it,” she said. “When parents can take their kids to the park, they actually get a little break. There’s going to be something going on here where all of their kids can be engaged. We just saw that there was really a need in the community for this.”

Looking ahead to Sept. 17, several organizations will gather from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on the lawn of the Michigan Capitol in Lansing to celebrate the anniversary.

Among those slated to be there are the Disability Network of Michigan, the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition, the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council and the office of State ADA Compliance. Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, will be the keynote speaker.

Adapt, a grassroots advocacy organization that coordinated the Capitol Crawl demonstration 25 years ago, will also be on hand in Lansing. An anticipated 500 supporters from across Michigan’s 83 counties will be there to discuss how much has been done in regard to the rights of people with disabilities, and how much more work there is left to do.

Bauer knows there’s plenty of work ahead, and she’s not slowing down. For her, the biggest hurdles that still exist are employment and wage gaps for people with disabilities. She said the percentage of people with disabilities making a living wage is far too low. And that’s just the start — but she’s optimistic and as energized as ever to right the wrongs.

“I think we have come lightyears forward,” she said. “I know it’s not perfect and I know there’s resistance ahead, like for instance, local schools providing appropriate special education resources without having to be sued. But I go to places with automatic doors or bathrooms with lowered towel dispensers and I think ‘30 years ago, that wasn’t possible.’”