This Day In History: July 5

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On July 5, 1978, a Regional Transportation District (RTD) bus stops at the intersection of Colfax Avenue and Broadway in Denver, Colorado. As passengers board, a group of people in wheelchairs position themselves in front of the bus, preventing it from leaving the stop. When a second bus arrives behind it, more people in wheelchairs position themselves behind that bus and refuse to leave, trapping the buses between them. For the next 24 hours, 19 disabled activists known as the “Gang of 19” keep the buses where they are, making a powerful statement about the accessibility of transportation in the city and all over America.

Denver had recently updated its bus fleet, but only a handful of its vehicles could accommodate people in wheelchairs. The cost of a ride was prohibitively expensive to many people with disabilities, and the miniscule number of accessible buses meant that a simple trip could take disabled riders the better part of a day.

In 1977, a group known as Atlantis Community sued the city demanding more accessible vehicles, arguing that “We put people on the moon, so we can probably put lifts on buses.” Atlantis, a group dedicated to providing free, individualized care to those in need, recognized the importance of challenging the status quo and did so via an offshoot, ADAPT (American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today). Led by Atlantis co-founder and Presbyterian minister Wade Blank, it was ADAPT members who staged the protest a year later, disrupting downtown traffic during rush hour and refusing to budge until RTD agreed to install lifts in at least a third of its fleet.

Protesters chanted “We will ride!” as the media, local and national, caught on to what was happening at the intersection. The police who arrived on the scene “didn’t know what to do,” according to activist Barry Rosenberg, who participated in the action. The next day officials from RTD held meetings with the protestors and indicated their willingness to discuss installing lifts. Eventually, RTD and Atlantis settled their lawsuit, with the transportation authority agreeing to the demand that one-third of Denver’s buses be made wheelchair-accessible. “That was the start of something big for people with disabilities,” Rosenberg later said.

The protest was just the beginning for ADAPT and for the disability rights movement. ADAPT continues to organize for accessibility and healthcare to this day—its members came out in force in 2017 to pressure their lawmakers to defend the Affordable Care Act against a Republican proposal to “repeal and replace” it. As activism spread across the country in the wake of the Gang of 19’s actions, momentum built for a federal accessibility law, culminating in the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.