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Anatomy of an Action:  ADAPT Goes to Ohio

by Homer Page

From October 31 to November 3, 1999, ADAPT gathered in Columbus, Ohio, to take its message of independence and personal choice to the Ohio State Government. ADAPT is a civil rights organization for persons with disabilities. Over the past two decades, ADAPT has been at the forefront of the disabilities rights movement. ADAPT has taken the lead in securing accessible transportation, advocating for federal legislation on behalf of persons with disabilities and freeing persons with disabilities from nursing homes and state institutions. It came to Ohio to promote the reallocation of Medicaid funds from nursing homes to integrated community based programs.

Bob Kafka, an ADAPT organizer from Austin, Texas says, "Ohio was chosen because it is one of the worst states in the nation for promoting independent living." ADAPT says that Ohio puts eight times as much money in nursing home care, $2.4 billion as in community based services. Representative George Terwilliger, a state representative from Cincinnati, introduced HB 215, the Ohio Personal Assistance Services Act. HB 215 requires state officials to offer services to persons with disabilities who need personal care in an integrated setting. However, Speaker of the House, Joanne Davidson, refuses to schedule the bill for a hearing.

ADAPT leaders in Ohio say that they have been stonewalled by state officials. Shona Eakin of Toledo says, "ADAPT of Ohio has tried several times to meet with Governor Taft and numerous times with Jackie Senski, the state director of social services."

So when ADAPT came to Columbus, its members wanted a meeting with Governor Taft, Speaker Davidson and Director Senski. Mike Auberger, ADAPTís national organizer, received a letter from Governor Taft during the week of October 24, offering to meet with the group on Thursday, November 4. However, the group was scheduled to leave on November 3. The group consequently viewed the offer as disingenuous. Speaker Davidson did not respond to a request for a meeting, neither did Ms. Senski. The way was thus prepared for a confrontation.

An ADAPT action is a political event. The leaders and members of the organization want to bring a greater awareness of their issues before the public and political officials. They want to change public policy, but they also want to help persons who have severe disabilities gain a sense of empowerment and personal dignity. The ADAPT actions are important tools for the empowerment of persons with disabilities. Vicki Gold, a veteran activist, says she has participated in eighteen of the last twenty actions. She says, "I have seen our people numb with fatigue, crowded in spaces where they couldnít move, frozen by sleet and ten degree temperatures, and they never whined or gave up. We can be manhandled by the police, arrested and thrown in jail, but we will not quit. We are fighting for our freedom and dignity. What the officials donít understand is that we are a peopleís movement. We donít do this to be on television. We do this to be free, to live in our own homes. We want to come and go as we please. We are talking about the very basic, physical control of our own lives."

ADAPT members assembled in Columbus on Saturday, October 30, and Sunday, October 31. They came from across the nation. One group from Boulder, Colorado, brought two vehicles and twelve people. A van loaded with people pulled a U-Haul trailer filled with wheelchairs and other equipment used by the group. The bonding that occurs in these cross country treks is thought to be an important part of the community building that characterizes an ADAPT action.

Formal meetings began on Sunday. A seminar for first time attendees oriented participants to the activities of the upcoming week. A number of workshops focused on current issues, and an evening meeting held in the open air celebrated with humor and reverence the struggle for independence that is being waged by the disability community.

ADAPT members assembled Monday morning by nine a.m. and waited for directions. At approximately eleven thirty, nearly five hundred persons, most of whom have disabilities, made their way to the Vernriffe Center. After months of frustrating effort to meet with Governor Taft and Speaker Davidson, the group took matters into its own hands and went uninvited.

 

The group broke into three parts. One contingent made its way to the thirtieth floor where Governor Taftís office is located. A second group went to Speaker Davidsonís office on the fourteenth floor, and the third group remained in the lobby. State police soon appeared and the state building quickly took on the appearance of a prison under siege.

By one p.m., those who were ill or unable to face being locked in the building were evacuated. State employees withdrew from the center and ADAPTís occupation of the Vernriffe Center began in earnest.

 

The police locked demonstrators in small areas on each floor and denied them access to restrooms and water fountains. They brought in video cameras and listening devices to monitor ADAPT activities. By late afternoon, water and snacks which protesters brought with them were exhausted. Persons with spinal chord injuries and other disabilities that inhibit bladder control often are catheterized and connected to a bag which is strapped to their leg. Urine is collected in this bag. If the bag is not emptied, the urine can back up in a persons body and become life threatening. Attendants moved through the group removing leg bags and placing them in a single trash can. State spokespersons reported to the press that ADAPT demonstrators were covering the floor with urine and feces, a charge that ADAPT members who were present vehemently deny.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, staff persons from the Governorís office were on the phone with ADAPT leaders. National organizer, Mike Auberger, was equipped with a cell phone that had a speaker. When he spoke with the Governorís aides, he used his speaker so everyone could hear the conversation. Those present report that all requests for a meeting with Governor Taft on Wednesday were rejected. The progressively more angry aide stuck to a Thursday meeting date, and insisted that no consideration of a Wednesday meeting could occur until after the group left the building.

By nine p.m., ADAPT leaders faced with neither food nor water, nor access to restrooms began to think about leaving. They circulated through the group gathering input on when to leave and measuring the spirits and physical condition of their colleagues. A decision was made to leave, but only if arrests were made. The police were happy to oblige. ADAPT protesters left the building shortly after midnight.

Tuesday was to bring still another confrontation between ADAPT and the Ohio State Police. The Ohio ADAPT chapter had been trying to meet with Jackie Senski for several months, so the group went en masse to visit her. They were met at the entrance to the James Rhodes State Office Building, where Ms. Senskiís office is located, by a large number of state police. While ADAPT members waited in front of the building, leaders negotiated to meet with Ms. Senski. A meeting was arranged with her, but before the meeting could take place, the police cancelled it, charged the group, and began making arrests.

Nan Hildebrand, an able-bodied ADAPT member, said, "People were roughed up by the police. They came out and started squeezing peopleís arms and pushing pressure points. They were really hurting people."

A number of buses and vans appeared. Everyone in the ADAPT group was arrested, loaded on the buses, and driven to the nearby state fairground. They were taken into a large exhibit hall, where they were booked and held until they were loaded back on the buses and driven to their hotel. On Wednesday, the group went back to the Rhodes Building, but there was not a confrontation. ADAPT held a rally. A coffin was opened and ADAPT members placed pieces of paper with the names of their friends who died in nursing homes written on them into the coffin. The occasion was solemn.

ADAPT members traditionally put up a wooden cross and tie a wheelchair to it to symbolize the suffering which persons with disabilities have endured in institutional settings. When a Denver man brought a cross forward, the police rushed out from the building and seized it. Later, they said it had been seized because they feared it would be used as a battering ram.

When the ceremony ended, the ADAPT activists drifted away. They left Ohio feeling that they had made a strong statement that was well received by the public. They believe that they have shown the citizens of Ohio just how serious their cause is to them, and how committed they are to providing choice for people with disabilities. They endured a snow and sleet storm, faced the police, allowed themselves to be arrested, and spent more than twelve hours locked in a state office building. They believe that they dramatized the plight of many, and the courage and commitment of the disability rights movement. They were tired, but satisfied with a job well done.

However, Ohio governor Robert Taft has a very different perspective on the ADAPT action. Scott Milburn, the governorís press secretary, said, "The Governor is disappointed. He really did want to meet with the ADAPT folks, and learn about their issues." He said that Governor Taft reached out to the group to try to arrange a meeting. Milburn said, "Normally, a group will contact the governor in advance to set up a meeting, but ADAPT did not contact the governor. He learned about their plans to come to Columbus when he read about it in the newspaper. He then wrote to the group proposing a meeting on Thursday, November 4. The only response that he received was something scribbled on a piece of scrap paper."

Milburn was highly critical of the "unprofessional behavior" of ADAPT. But ADAPT spokespersons said that they felt the offer was disingenuous because the group planned to leave Columbus on Wednesday, November 3. However, Milburn said that the newspaper stated that the group would be in town through Thursday. He said that the Governorís schedule had been very full until Thursday. He was out of town on Monday. Tuesday was a statewide Election Day, and the Governorís staff booked him solidly on Wednesday. "However, the Governor did offer to meet with the group on Wednesday, but they had to give us back our building," Milburn said.

Mr. Milburn said that the arrests on Wednesday at the Rhodes Office Building came as the result of ADAPT members failing to clear the building. He said, "The weather was really bad, and we had four thousand state workers in the building. We were considering letting them go home early. We couldnít have them locked in during the storm." He said, "By the time ADAPT accepted a meeting and offered to leave the building, it was too late. The State Police had already begun making arrests and clearing the building. Milburn said that he was at the Rhodes Office Building and it did not look to him as if anyone meant to leave. He did say the doors to the building were not blocked.

Scott Milburn believes that an excellent opportunity was wasted. "The mood is sour around here now," he said. "We are willing to talk with a serious and substantive group, but ADAPT seems more interested in getting into the media than talking with us. The Governor is new. He doesnít have much background in these issues, but he wanted to listen. We are a large state, and we have a lot of issues. We have a lot of other things to do. We are not like other states where the Governor wouldnít listen. I donít think ADAPT has the tools to work with someone who wants to work with them. For now, the Governor will just go on to other issues.

But Shona Eakin, ADAPT contact person in Toledo, and Director of Advocacy for the Ability Independent Living Center, tells a different story. "My husband has Muscular Dystrophy, and heís on a ventilator. I am physically disabled. I use a wheelchair, and I cannot stand. We depend on personal care assistants every day of our lives. On December 4, we were scheduled to have an aide come into our home at noon and help us through the afternoon and evening. That aide did not arrive until eleven p.m. I did what I could to help my husband, but he would not take his medication because it makes him need to use the restroom. People who have not lived in our situation donít understand what it is like to have to depend on a system that is broken. The home healthcare system in Ohio is broken."

Ms. Eakin says that she and other Ohioans made numerous attempts to meet with Governor Taft, Speaker Davidson and Director Senski prior to the ADAPT action. In each case, they were rebuffed.

"We are very serious people," she said. "We live these issues every day. Often the failure of the system is life-threatening to us. We believe that we have the right to meet with those in our state government who control our very existence."

Ms. Eakin says that she and her colleagues in Ohio are having to deal with a backlash from the action. The Governorís office has not responded to Ms. Eakinís letter requesting a meeting. Speaker Davidson has also failed to respond to requests to meet with the group. They have met with Director Senski, but she has lectured them about wanting things to change too fast. Representative Terwilliger has been quoted as saying, "The ADAPT action was a bunch of children who, when they didnít get their way, acted very badly."

Ms. Eakin believes that in the long run, the ADAPT action will prove to be very positive for Ohioans with disabilities. She says, "We have gotten the attention of the government, and they know we can come back. People with disabilities have a better feeling about themselves. They believe that they have the ability to force persons in government to take them seriously. The action has helped us recruit new members, and that is really important. Persons with disabilities are learning that they donít have to take whatever crumbs the government wants to give us. We will take power over our own lives."

Director of Social Services, Senski, has agreed to a quarterly meeting with ADAPT members to address a variety of issues. However, she has not discussed the five point agenda that ADAPT wished to discuss with her in November. Ms. Eakin has also met with Barbara Edwards, the Ohio Director of Medicaid. "These meetings have been frustrating so far," akin says, "but they are a start."

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