A Moment in History
By Jan Lampman
I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s. Although we were not bombarded with news, real and fake, every hour of every day, this was a time when more than ever, even children heard about what was happening all around the country. Some of the most impactful memories that I have of those decades were the newspaper and television coverage of the many protests and organized rallies that took place. I was very young when Dr. King and so many others were marching for jobs, housing, transportation, education and equality for all citizens. Although I do not remember the details of those early civil rights actions, I certainly felt moved by them. My more detailed memories were of the protests of the Vietnam War. I was only a tween and teen, but I felt the tension and animosity of the opposing viewpoints related to that war. I remember flag burnings and arrests. One of my dearest friends tells the story of the Kent State riot from the perspective of a student on that campus on that day. There was no “checking in safe” on social media at that time, so her parents had to wonder and worry about her safety for hours and days after the events of Mary 4, 1970. Protest, mostly peaceful but sometimes violent is a part of our DNA. This country was founded by citizens who came together and took a stand in the streets.
A quick google search will bring up list after list of the biggest, longest running and “most” protests, marches or rallies in our history. When looking at a list of the top 20, you can see marches related to the civil rights of people of color, protests of wars, equal rights for women, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, poverty issues. What you don’t see on any of the lists that I viewed in my quick google search are actions or marches related specifically to disability rights. However, I know that they have occurred and that they have made a difference. The Americans with Disabilities Act might not have passed had it not been for 60+ people who got out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the Capital steps on March 12, 1990. With over 1000 fellow protesters cheering them on, this group of 60 brought the issue into our living rooms due to the media coverage that it garnered. It was bold action that helped bring light to the work that so many activists had done to get this landmark legislation into the hands of congress in the first place.
Although the lists in my google search don’t show it, the 1980’s was a time when activists were using every means available, including Marches and protests, to move public policy along the path of inclusion and opportunity for all. A small, dedicated group of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities were among those activists. Tom Williams and Keith Brooks were members of People First, a group of local self-advocates (people with I/DD). This group was very impressed by work that self-advocates had done in Denver and other large cities related to making public transportation more available to people with disabilities. People First began to lobby our local government to purchase more lift equipped vans. They went to city council meetings, wrote letters, and met with Dial a Ride staff. Some of the members even met with state legislators. People First of Midland played a role in changing public policy in Michigan and in Midland. They added their powerful voices to the issue and things changed. Until her death in 2017, Charlotte Williams, sat on the Dial a Ride Commission, continuing to insure that people with disabilities had equal access to public transportation.
Charlotte’s husband Tom and his friend Keith Brooks, also made significant contributions to the civil rights movement for people with I/DD. On October 7, 1989, Keith and Tom along with a couple of very young direct support professionals, drove to Washington DC to participate in a March on Washington to demand affordable housing options for all citizens. There were somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 people gathered in the District of Columbia to tell Jack Kemp, director of the department of Housing and Urban Development that what was happening for people who found themselves homeless or institutionalized was not working. Tom and Keith marched that day, but they also mobilized people back home to write letters, talk to their legislators and continue to advocate for more affordable housing opportunities for all people. Because both men had lived in an institution, they were keenly aware of the damage that congregating vulnerable people in tight quarters could do to a person, so they knew that there needed to be more ways for people to become home owners and more single family homes that were affordable in addition to apartments and other kinds of places.
While the Capital step crawl or the Housing Now march did not make the top 20 list on Wikipedia, both actions were part of an effort that has changed the landscape for all citizens for the better. Today people who use wheelchairs in Midland can get on any Dial A Ride bus as they are all lift equipped. Through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority Section 8 program, low income people including those with disabilities can access housing subsidies so that they can live in a place that they chose. There are amazing senior housing complexes. Since 1989, The Arc of Midland alone has assisted more than 20 people with I/DD to purchase their own home. Home ownership was not thought to be an option for Tom, Keith or Charlotte when they left the institution in 1980. Because of their labors and the labors of so many others, today it is not only a dream, but a reality.
The activists are still being active. There are still marches and protests. Sometimes it feels like we take backward steps and someone is going to have to get out of the wheelchair and start climbing up the Capital steps again (or get arrested in Senate hearing chambers). We can take a minute today to thank those activists that came before us, those pioneers. We can take a minute to count the many blessings that their work produced. Then we can pick up our signs and write our letters and schedule our meetings and get back to work.