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  • Radical Historians

The Capitol Crawl & Passage of the ADA

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is the most comprehensive United States disability law. It prohibits disability discrimination and guarantees the right of individuals with disabilities to receive reasonable accommodations in order to work and participate in all aspects of society.* The act's passage would not have been possible without over a decade's worth of work by disability rights activists. The 504 Sit-in, the Gang of 19, and hundreds of ADAPT protests across the nation led the way, but it was only after the Capitol Crawl on March 12, 1990 that government officials finally agreed to do something.

Justin Dart is considered the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As stated by Olmstead Rights, "he earned degrees in political science and history and wanted to become a teacher, but his teaching certificate was withheld because he used a wheelchair." In 1981, Dart was appointed to be the vice-chair of the National Council on Disability by President Ronald Reagan and began touring the country meeting with disability rights advocates as ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit) protests continued. Dart and other advocates on the National Council ultimately created a policy proposal for national civil rights legislation to end disability discrimination. This policy proposal became the framework for the ADA.

In 1988 the council successfully recruited Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. (R-CT) and Congressman Tony Coelho (D-CA) to introduce the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the ADA did not pass that year, it was reintroduced in 1989 and championed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). * According to History By Zimm, Harkin had authored and introduced the new version of the ADA to the Senate, delivering part of the speech in sign language so his deaf brother could understand. If the law passed, it would outlaw discrimination based on physical or mental disability in employment, access to buildings, public and private transportation, and more. The act was comprised of four main goals for people with disabilities: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

“We’re not asking for any favors. We’re simply asking the same rights and equality any other American has.” -Irving King Jordan, the first deaf president of Gallaudet College for the deaf.

Unfortunately the 1989 act quickly stalled in the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.* Frustrated and determined, ADAPT and other disability rights advocates descended upon Washington D.C. on March 12, 1990, where over 1,000 protesters came from 30 states to protest the Act’s delay. Following a day filled with speeches and rallies, over 60 activists abandoned their wheelchairs and mobility devices and began crawling up the 83 stone steps up to the U.S. Capitol Building, all while chanting, "ACCESS NOW" and “What do we want?” “ADA!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”

The late Michael Winter, former Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, contributed his reflections on the "Capitol Crawl" to ADAPT's 25th Anniversary "I Was There" series of firsthand accounts.

"Some people may have thought it was undignified for people in wheelchairs to crawl in that manner, but 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. We had to be willing to fight for what we believed in." - Michael Winter

Eight-year old Jennifer Keelan, made the trek to the US Capitol from Denver, Colorado with her family. She was in second-grade at the time and living with cerebral palsy. She and her family were members of the original Denver chapter of ADAPT. Jennifer was inspired to attend the March 1990 protest and crawl up the capitol steps after her friend Kenny Perkins passed away in January of that same year. She was taped during the event saying “I’ll take all night if I have to,” as she climbed. The image of her crawling up the steps has been immortalized into one of the most iconic scenes from the day. She details her experience from the crawl in the video below:

The event was meant to push congress to pass the landmark legislation, and it did. President George H.W. Bush himself, came out to the steps of the US Capitol and told the movement leadership that if they called off the protest congress would sign the bill.* A little over four months later, on July 26, 1990, the bill was signed into law.


To continue ADAPT's import work, donate here:

Further learning

For Adults:

The Gang of 19 - ADA Movement

Crip Camp

For middle-high school students:

The Capitol Crawl: A Video Discussion Guide

For elementary school students:

All the Way to the Top: How One Girl's Fight for Americans with Disabilities... Read Aloud

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