The “Capitol Crawl” protest for disability rights on March 12, 1990, might have been the single most important catalyst for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 25 years ago. The law aimed to end segregation of physically and mentally disabled persons and promised them equal opportunity to participate in society, live independently and achieve economic self-sufficiency.
More than 1,000 protesters came to Washington that day to urge Congress to approve the measure, which had been stalled for several months. Calling for immediate action, they chanted “What do we want?” “ADA!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”
I. King Jordan, the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, said, “We’re not asking for any favors. … We’re simply asking the same rights and equality any other American has.”
Then, to symbolize the barriers confronting disabled people, more than 60 activists abandoned their crutches, wheelchairs, powerchairs and other mobility-assistance devices and began crawling up the 83 stone steps that lead to the Capitol.
News media recorded Jennifer Keelan, an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy, declaring “I’ll take all night if I have to” as she pulled herself up on hands and arms.
Close behind her was Michael Winter, who had been born with a genetic disorder that made his bones brittle and required him to use a wheelchair.
Winter began that day reflecting on how his disability had made him subject to discrimination, like “being forced to go to a ‘special’ segregated school instead of integrated ones, not being allowed on a Continental Trailways bus because of my disability, and being told in a restaurant that ‘We don’t serve disabled people,’” he later said.
“I felt that it was necessary to show the country what kinds of things people with disabilities have to face on a day-to-day basis,” Winter said. “We had to be willing to fight for what we believed in.”
The added attention and political pressure caused by the Capitol Crawl worked. Within four months, Congress passed the ADA. Then-President George H.W. Bush signed it into law July 26, 1990.
The act outlawed discrimination based on physical or mental disability in employment and ensured access to buildings and public and private transportation.
“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” Bush said at the signing ceremony.