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  • Aileen Marie

Atlantis, The Gang of 19 & the History of Accessible Transportation in Denver

Earlier this month, we chose to highlight Atlantis Community, Inc. as an amazing community organization to support. This is why...


Prior to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, those living with permanent physical and mental disabilities, were historically treated as abnormal objects of pity and discrimination. They were marginalized by their able-bodied peers and were either put on display in circuses, or as Dr. Patty Limerick, Colorado State Historian, said, "were put in storage" at institutions and nursing homes. If a child was born with a physical disability, doctors and the overarching status-quo, encouraged the new parents to send their children to live in an institution. Children were essentially abandoned at these institutions and nursing homes, where they grew up isolated and overly medicated in conditions that resembled a prison.


“Before our movement began, you were guaranteed a nursing home bed to rot and die. You were not promised the right to home and community-based services and being able to live in those freedoms that we talk about. Just because you are born with or you acquire a disability, that doesn’t give them a right to say, oh, we’ll lock you up in the nursing home."- Dawn Russell (ADAPT organizer)

During the early 1970's, a nursing home in Lakewood, Colorado called Heritage House, subjected their residents to particularly horrendous living conditions. One resident, was amputated above the waist due to repeated, untreated bed sores. He was referred to as the shortest person in Colorado because of it. Other residents experienced maggots in their wounds, and some found cockroaches in their cereal. Luckily, the residents soon found a friend and advocate in Wade Blank, the newly hired Heritage House Activities Director.


Wade was raised in Ohio, where we became a Presbyterian minister. He was also a civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. He was thoroughly trained in nonviolent civil disobedience, and helped draft resisters during the Vietnam War. He moved to Denver, Colorado in search of solace and a fresh start after witnessing the atrocities at Kent State during the Kent State Massacre.


At Heritage House, Wade was put in charge of Youth Services during a time period in which youth culture was witnessing a social revolution and the ideals of freedom, civil rights, and sexuality were fully embraced. Why should people with disabilities be excluded from this same revolution?


Reverend Wade Blank, an inspiring leader, recruited existing and new Heritage House staff and volunteers to break the cycle of neglect in nursing homes. He, and future Atlantis Co-Founder, Barry Rosenberg, would arrange for buses for field trips to take Heritage House residents to rock concerts and bowling alleys. He snuck pets into the nursing home and allowed residents to express their own full individuality in which ever way they chose to. Wade and Barry helped everyone register to vote, and even got political candidates to come and visit residents.


Wade saw what mainstream society couldn't: individuals with disabilities deserved the right to thrive, and he did everything in his power to make that possible. The nursing home was still confining though, so Wade made it his goal to get as many residents out as he could. In the PBS Colorado Experience, documentary titled "The Gang of 19 - ADA Movement," Barry Rosenberg remembers that as soon as Wade confided in him that he wanted to get the residents out of Heritage House, he knew he wanted to call the project, "Atlantis - the lost city of great people." The people hidden and subjected to life in nursing homes and institutions, were lost. They were segregated from society and they deserved to be integrated, and given the chance to fully live.


“I feel my spirit surging inside, So beware any man, Who stands in my way”

-Into the Heart of God - poem by Michael Patrick Smith


As the Atlantis Early Action Project became a reality and Wade began work to move a few residents at a time out of Heritage House, it became known that Heritage House was stealing money from the residents. Michael Patrick Smith, a 21 year old poet with muscular dystrophy was in the hospital when he called attorney, John Holland, and informed him Heritage House was stealing his Medicaid personal needs money. When Holland took on his case, he soon found that Heritage House was stealing Medicaid personal needs money from all the residents, and they sued Heritage House for the mistreatment of 41 residents.



Around the same time, Wade took several of the youth of Heritage House to the state legislature to protest nursing home living conditions and was consequently fired from Heritage House. In tandem with the existing lawsuit against Heritage House, Wade Blank, Barry Rosenberg, and attorney John Holland, were able to convince the state of Colorado to fund the deinstitutionalization of residents from Heritage House and other nursing homes, into the Sun Valley Los Casitas Housing Project. The initial funding allowed for 15 people to move into 8 units. The poet Michael Patrick Smith, was one of the first residents to make the move.


The lawsuit against Heritage House was soon won, and Heritage House eventually went bankrupt. The suit led to a national inspection system for nursing homes and care facilities. The individuals responsible for the neglect and harm put upon the residents were sued for damages, and the money won was split amongst all the Heritage House refugees and helped fund 20 new homes in the Sun Valley Los Casitas Housing Project.


The housing project , which later became Atlantis Community, Inc. as it is known today, became the second center for independent living in the country. Atlantis' mission is to support people with all types of disabilities, and help them live in their own homes, in their own communities, and be fully integrated into those communities.

 

Before public transit buses became accessible, there were only one or two private companies that provided wheelchair transportation around the Denver area. As Atlantis co founder Barry Rosenberg noted in the PBS documentary above, each of those companies charged $35 a ride at a time when the state only gave individuals with disabilities, $10 a month for personal needs money.


At the time Atlantis was founded, Denver had just ordered 254 Rohr Flxible buses without wheelchair capability. The same lawyer that helped 41 Heritage House residents sue the profit hungry nursing home, John Holland, called the Director of RTD’s legal department and told him he would sue the city's transportation district for the buses being inaccessible. Although he did take RTD to court, the court ultimately felt that Congress needed to act on the issue, not the courts.


In turn, 19 Atlantis community members, Reverend Wade Blank, and other allies began a bus boycott that soon sparked a nationwide movement, thus becoming the Gang of 19.



The gang included:

  • Jeannie Joyce

  • Kerry Schott

  • Jim Lundvall

  • Lori Heezen

  • Glenn Kopp

  • Bob Conrad

  • Larry Ruiz

  • Cindy Dunn

  • Paul Brady

  • Terrie Fowler

  • Linda Chism - Andre

  • Renate Rabe-Conrad

  • Willy Cornelison

  • Mary Ann Sisneros

  • Carolyn Finnell

  • George Roberts

  • Mel Conrardy

  • Bobby Simpson

  • Debbie Tracy

Over July 5th and 6th 1978, the gang took to the busy intersection of Colfax and Broadway - the epicenter of transportation in Downtown Denver- and staged a sit-in surrounding an RTD 15 bus, prohibiting it from moving and halting traffic. All while chanting, "We will ride! We will ride!"


The sit in quickly drew a crowd of almost 80 people. The police were quick to the scene and refused to arrest anyone who was disabled because they thought it would make them look bad. Instead, the police arrested the able-bodied attendants. The event became a stark reminder, that even while protesting, citizens with disabilities were discriminated against.


“How are you going to have a civil rights movement if you can’t even get arrested for civil disobedience?” -attorney, John Holland

Holland immediately tried to sue the city, for knowingly arresting the attendants rather than the protestors, due to an equal protection violation. There were 19 tickets to defend for those that were arrested. Everyone who hadn't been arrested went to the courtroom, where Holland argued that the police violated the constitution for selectively enforcing criminal law and insisted the judge dismiss all the charges- which is exactly what the judge did. The lawsuit against RTD was also eventually won, ensuring the creation of an accessible lift on all future RTD buses.


The event was the spectacle that Wade and the Gang of 19 hoped it would be. On the heels of the 504 Sit-in in San Francisco, it pushed the needle of the disability rights movement further and led to the creation of ADAPT (the advocacy wing of Atlantis) in 1983 and its sister chapters across the country. They continued to fight all across the nation by continuing to organize, protest, sue, and get as much media attention as possible. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), was their target, and whenever and wherever the association convened, ADAPT was there to protest.



The Americans with disabilities Act was introduced into Congress in 1988 but quickly stalled. Frustrated and determined, ADAPT and hundreds of other disability rights advocates took on the US Capitol on March 12, 1990, in what is now referred to as the Capitol Crawl.

George H. Bush told the Capitol Crawl movement's leadership, that if they called off the protest, they would sign the bill. The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed to end the protest. The bill was officially signed into law on July 26, 1990- over 12 years after the Gang of 19 took on Denver.


 

Learn more about ADAPT here: https://adapt.org/our-journey/


Donate to ADAPT here: https://adapt.org/donate/


Help continue the amazing work Atlantis Community, Inc. does here: https://atlantiscommunity.org/get-involved/donate/


For a great book to teach young children about Jennifer Keelan-Chaffin's Capitol Crawl and it's immense impact: All the Way to the Top: How One Girl's Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything


For more on the 504 Sit-in and the road to ADA, check out: Crip Camp


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