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ADAPT:  The Legend of It's Leaders

by Homer Page

A few years ago, Mike Auberger and his colleagues at ADAPT were frustrated because they could not buy a hamburger at McDonald’s. They took action. McDonald’s settled. Now you see people with disabilities in McDonald’s TV ads. This victory over a major corporation helped define the power of the disability rights movement and the strength of the leadership of Mike Auberger. ADAPT is a unique organization. Mr. Auberger is its national organizer. This is the new title that the organization has chosen for its leader. However, our hierarchical language which uses terms such as leader, director, president, has a hard time expressing exactly what ADAPT means by the title, "national organizer."

Over the last two decades, ADAPT has been at the forefront of the disability rights movement. Its activism has frustrated and outraged those who have been its targets. It has galvanized its powerless membership into an effective army for social change. It has an impressive list of victories, even though those who have opposed ADAPT will tell you the organization’s "radical" tactics had no influence on their decisions to find accommodations with the ADAPT demands.

Disability Life Magazine sat down with Mike Auberger to find out more about the man and the organization that he co-founded in 1983 and now "leads."

DL: Mike, tell us about your background.

MA: My father was in the military, so I grew up an army brat. We lived in Europe and all over the U.S. My father was a very outspoken man and a radical Republican. After he left the military in the late 1960s, we lived in Ohio where he led a property tax revolt. I was born in 1955, so I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests. When I look back at my father’s influence on me and at what was going on in those years while I was growing up, I can see how it all came together. I grew up believing that all people should be treated fairly, with respect and dignity, and that everyone should be treated equally.

DL: What is the nature of your disability?

MA: I received a spinal cord injury when I was 17 years old. I was riding a luge at Lake Placid, New York. Back then, no one had heard of a luge, so I just had to say it was a bobsled. Now the luge is very glamorous.

DL: You were just a teenager and you were quadriplegic. What did you do to make a life for yourself?

MA: I had my father’s sense of equality and willingness to fight. That helped a lot. I went to Xavier College in Cincinnati and got a degree in accounting. After college I went to work for the IRS. I worked five years for the government, but I could see that I was going nowhere with them.

DL: What brought you to Colorado?

MA: While I worked for the IRS during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I did some camping in the Colorado mountains. I came to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, for some rehabilitation work and to get my life together. I decided to stay in Colorado. I left the IRS and started making plans to leave Craig.

I needed to find an agency that could provide an attendant service, so one of the Craig nurses brought me a list. She mentioned Atlantis, but told me that I wouldn’t want to use them because they were a radical group. That was all I needed. A radical group was just what I wanted.

I connected with Atlantis and met Wade Blank, the agency director. Wade had gotten a small grant to do community organizing. I was hired to carry out the work of the grant, and my transition to Colorado was complete. I have been here ever since.

DL: How did ADAPT get started?

MA: Wade Blank was a very charismatic person. His roots went back to the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests. Wade came to Colorado in the 1970s and began to work with persons with disabilities in nursing homes. Soon he and a few disabled persons formed the Atlantis community. They quickly understood that it was not enough to just free persons from institutions, they had to be able to get out there in the community if they were to really be free. So they started taking on other issues. One of the first was accessible public transportation. ADAPT originally formed around the struggle to put lifts on buses. ADAPT stood for "Action To Develop Accessible Public Transit," but now we have dropped the acronym. We are not issue specific. We believe that society must adapt.

DL: What is the thinking behind ADAPT’s philosophy of organization and leadership?

MA: We thought a lot about these issues when we were getting started. We took note of the way in which the Civil Rights Movement had depended on a charismatic leader to hold it together, and then after the death of Dr. King, it had fragmented. We wanted to avoid some of those pitfalls. We wanted to build our organization around the people, not the leadership.

ADAPT is not incorporated. We have no budget, nor paid staff. We have no board of directors. We fund our activities through small fundraising activities and contributions, usually in kind from groups sympathetic to our cause.

ADAPT has chapters in 44 cities. Each chapter selects representatives who participate in planning meetings and conference calls to set ADAPT policies and actions.

Our philosophy of leadership is very important to us. We believe that a leader must lead by example. I must be willing to get arrested if I expect others to take that risk. People with disabilities do not have a strong sense of power. They can be intimidated. A leader must show others how to remain strong in stressful situations, but the leader must not think that he or she is different from others. In society’s eyes, no matter your titles or accomplishments, you are still "just a disabled person." A leader must not forget that. You must maintain a strong identity with the person with whom you act. We do not have high-flown titles and positions because we know that our strength is in our unity.

We have over 4,000 members. We can bring several hundred persons to an action. For special events we can assemble as many as 1,500 persons. Our strength is in our self-discipline, our unity of purpose, and our numbers.

DL: ADAPT has great unity with hardly any organizational structure. How do you maintain such a high level of solidarity?

MA: Everyone is respected. If someone speaks slowly or is difficult to understand, we are patient until we do understand. We avoid faction by minimizing leadership roles. We have one priority at a time, so we are not fragmented. Our actions give us focus and a common sense of purpose. We are building a common culture and a common political perspective. We really do care about one another.

We load up vans and drive across the country to take part in an action. People are crowded in like sardines. We can’t afford for anyone to fly, but in these trips, we get to know one another. We talk about what the action is really all about, and we build our commitment to one another.

DL: What do you feel have been ADAPT’s major accomplishments and what is your current agenda?

MA: As I have said, we began with public transportation. We fought that battle city by city, but in the end, the passage of the ADA insures that in time all public transportation will be accessible. We were frustrated that in many locations we could not buy a hamburger at McDonald’s so we negotiated a settlement with them. They agreed to include persons with disabilities in their advertising. The McDonald’s corporation also agreed to develop an employment program. They have worked with their franchise owners to create accessible locations, but I am not entirely satisfied with the way that has worked out.

After our victory in the public transit area, we moved to attacking the need for high quality community based services. ADAPT is working at the state level, but our top priority is the passage of federal legislation that will create the framework for a national commitment to community based services for all who desire them. Our legislation, "Mis Casas," will create the guarantees that we need. We want to emphasize the home-based location of the services.

Late last year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Olmstead case. As everyone knows, Olmstead involved two developmentally disabled women who sued the state of Georgia because they wanted to be served in a community setting. ADAPT was deeply involved with the Olmstead case. The Supreme Court decision is a very important victory for ADAPT and for the disability community. Olmstead has affirmed the right of persons with disabilities to live independently. "Mis Casas" can provide the resources that will make our rights become realities.

When we win the battle for attendant services, we will move on to another issue. Perhaps it will be workshops and employment.

DL: You have accomplished a great deal in your life. What kind of legacy would you like to leave?

MA: I am still too young to think about leaving a legacy. But maybe I would hope for something like this. My wife and I have a 26- year-old daughter and we are working on adopting a 5-year-old. I want to be a good husband and parent. That is an important legacy.

I am a co-founder of ADAPT. I am sure that is the most important thing I have done in my public life. If I can be a part of creating and developing an organization through which persons with disabilities can gain power and freedom, I will feel my life has been worthwhile.

DL: In addition to your work with ADAPT, you are the co-director of Atlantis. How does your work with ADAPT fit in with your work with Atlantis?

MA: I think of them as two sides of one coin. ADAPT is the soul of Atlantis. Through ADAPT, Atlantis remembers what it is.

Atlantis is a service provider. We have approximately 70 employees. Our budget last year was three million dollars. We provided over 40,000 attendant visits. We operate an equipment repair program, assist persons to work with government programs, and we do advocacy. We have helped persons with disabilities to secure over 80 million dollars in home financing so persons with disabilities can own their own homes. But in all this activity, it is our involvement with ADAPT that keeps us focused. We must remain humble and dedicated. We must not forget that life is about empowerment for everyone, not glory for a few.

DL: What are the most important needs for persons with disabilities?

MA: First we must continue to work to empower ourselves both individually and collectively. Second, we need to secure those services that will allow us to live independently, where and as we choose. Finally, we must continue to build a disability community that is nurturing and affirmative, patient and caring, and culturally rich. We must have the power, the resources, and the cultural strength that it takes to build lives of pride, dignity and freedom.

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