What do you want?”
“When do you want it?”
There are 82 stone steps up to the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., a relatively minor bit of trivia for the majority of legislators, tourists, and visitors who traverse them every day. But for those unable to walk up those steps, they’re hallowed ground. In 1990, a group of activists and legislators were fighting to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a far-reaching piece of legislation that sought to guarantee equal rights for then roughly 40 million American citizens with disabilities, in part by changing the way architects designed buildings. The bill’s potential financial implications had led lobbyists and legislators to bog down negotiations and create a stalemate in the House of Representatives. Patrisha Wright, a longtime advocate for the rights of people with disabilities who had earned the nickname “The General” for leading the ADA fight, felt it was time to make a statement.
On March 12, the Capitol Crawl, organized by ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit), gathered a crowd of hundreds of chanting supporters at the entrance of the country’s legislature. They watched 60 activists drop their canes or leave their wheelchairs and pull themselves up each of those steps. Dozens strained at the task, as friends and family offered them water and encouragement. Cameras focused on eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, who had cerebral palsy. She made her way up, hands-to-knees. At one point, she told the dozens of reporters focused on her that “I’ll take all night if I have to!”
“Here you have one of the symbols of freedom and democracy, and it’s got these huge steps barring people from coming in,” says Wright. The building offered wheelchair access via side entrances, but she felt the steps made for potent symbolism. “We needed something inspirational to make sure that people knew that those who were disabled weren’t going to sit down,” she says.
The “stunt,” as a handful of annoyed senators called it, proved to be an important turning point in the battle for the ADA. But more importantly, it dramatized the difficulties that the built environment poses for people with disabilities, who make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Wright, who herself was blind, wanted others to see how much design can change a person’s everyday actions and level of independence, and how poor design can create a form of what she called “second-class citizenship.”
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