On March 13, 1990, over 1,000 people marched from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to demand that Congress pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. When they got there, about 60 of them cast aside their wheelchairs and other mobility aids and crawled up the Capitol steps.
The “Capitol Crawl,” as it’s known, was a physical demonstration of how inaccessible architecture impacts people with disabilities. It also highlighted the urgency behind the need to pass the ADA, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law on July 26, 1990.
An Eight-Year-Old Activist Joins the 'Crawl'
The youngest person to climb the steps that day was eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, who by then had already been protesting for two years. At age six, she attended her first protest in Phoenix to advocate for accessible buses with ADAPT, the same disability rights group that helped organize the 1990 march in D.C.
“For me at age six, this was the first time that I ever had seen people with disabilities like myself fighting for their rights,” says Keelan-Chaffins, who continued her activist work and helped develop the children’s book All the Way to the Top about her Capitol climb. “I realized these people with disabilities are fighting for their right to be acknowledged and accepted…and I can too, and I want to be a part of that.”
When Keelan-Chaffins showed up to the Capitol Crawl, some organizers weren’t sure it was a good idea for her to climb the steps. This was because she was a child, and also because “they were concerned about what that could do, the image of me climbing the steps, and whether or not it would send a message of pity instead of empowerment,” she says.
ADAPT founder Reverend Wade Blank told her that if she wanted to climb the steps then she should do it, so she got out of her wheelchair and began climbing.
“Even though I was quite young, I realized that as one of the very few kids that got to be involved in this movement…it wasn’t just about myself but it was about them as well,” she says.
Legislative Victories Before the ADA
Disability rights groups have existed in the United States since at least the 19th century. In the decades leading up to the ADA, activists won legislative victories, gaining access to education, housing, transportation and federal buildings. In particular, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 set an important legal precedent for “disability” as a protected category.
The 1990 Capitol Crawl was part of a week of demonstrations in D.C. around the ADA, which sought to provide stronger protections for disability rights than any U.S. law before it. The day after the crawl, police arrested 104 people at an ADAPT protest inside the Capitol rotunda. One of them was Keelan-Chaffins’ mother, Cynthia Keelan.
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“We all pretended like we were going for the tour,” Keelan says. “Once we got everybody up into the Capitol rotunda, then we all sat down or stood there and said we want to meet with the Speaker of the House.”
The year before in Montreal, police had arrested both Keelan and seven-year-old Keelan-Chaffins while protesting a conference for the American Public Transportation Association. Ironically, the police had to obtain accessible school buses to transport the arrested demonstrators because they didn’t have accessible paddywagons.
Because of this experience, Keelan was careful to make sure Keelan-Chaffins and her younger sister, Kailee Keelan, were safe the day of the arrests at the Capitol rotunda. “But I did want my mother to get arrested on my behalf,” Keelan-Chaffins says. “Kailee and I both did ask mom to get arrested.”
Legacy of the Capitol Crawl
Though reporters and photographers covered the Capitol Crawl—particularly Keelan-Chaffins’s climb—it didn’t receive a huge amount of media attention at the time. Even so, it marked a significant event in disability rights history.
“It’s a dramatic event,” says Lennard J. Davis, a professor of English, disability studies and medical education at University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest U.S. Minority Its Rights. “You can’t watch that without being well aware of the difficulties of people with disabilities when they confront obstacles like stairs.”
“It’s definitely seen as a very important moment in disability rights activism,” says Aimi Hamraie, a professor of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University and author of Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability.
“One of the reasons is that it is part of a history and a lineage of disability activists doing protest in public space that use disability, including disabled bodies and assistive technologies, to show that the built environment is inaccessible,” Hamraie says. “So there’s a longer history of this practice that goes back at least to the 1950s, if not earlier.”
Disability activism didn’t begin with the ADA, and it didn’t end with it either. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 sought to broaden the original law, further protecting people with disabilities. In 2017, disability rights organizations like ADAPT staged well-publicized protests against cuts to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. These were the protests at which police pulled protestors from their wheelchairs and carried them out of federal buildings on Capitol Hill, the same place activists had climbed steps to call for the ADA’s passage nearly 30 years before.