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The Center on Colfax

Disability Rights

What is a Disability?

Since at least the mid-late nineteenth-century, women have played a crucial role in the fight for disability rights. The disabled community is the largest and most diverse minority in the world. Disabilities can be physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental. Also, many disabilities are considered “invisible,” such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, autism, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, arthritis, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, deafness or difficulty hearing, traumatic brain injury, mental illnesses, and other conditions.

The Early Activists

Well into the twentieth century, people with disabilities were considered abnormal and feeble-minded, and many were forced to undergo sterilization. People with disabilities were often committed to institutions and asylums against their wills, where many spent their entire lives. Many organizations were created for, and by, the disabled in the early to mid-twentieth century. The League of the Physically Handicapped, organized in the 1930s, fought for employment during the Great Depression. In the 1940s, psychiatric patients formed We Are Not Alone. They supported patients transitioning from hospitals to the community. In 1950, several local groups created the National Association for Retarded Children (NARC), now known as The Arc. By 1960, NARC had tens of thousands of members; most were parents seeking alternative forms of care and education for their children. As the civil rights movement began to form in the 1960s, the struggle for disability rights followed a similar pattern by challenging negative attitudes and stereotypes, rallying for political and institutional change, and lobbying for the self-determination of a minority community. Disability rights activists began mobilizing on the local level demanding national initiatives to address the physical and social barriers facing the disability community.


Laura Hershey being arrested at a protest by three policemen.

The 1970s and the 504 Sit-In

Spurred on by increased representation, disability activists began to see their efforts slowly rewarded during the 1970s. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provided equal employment opportunities within the federal government and federally funded programs, prohibiting discrimination based on physical or mental disability. However, the federal government was slow to implement the regulations. Four years later, in April 1977, a group of roughly 150 disability rights activists took over a floor of a federal building in San Francisco for 25 days. Kitty Cone (1944-2015), along with Judy Heumann (b. 1947), protested the Carter administration’s delay in implementing the law’s Section 504. Section 504’s ban against discrimination applies to service availability, accessibility, delivery, employment, and the administrative activities and responsibilities of organizations receiving federal financial assistance. The activist’s perseverance paid off as the Section 504 regulations were finally signed on April 28, 1977.


Laura Hershey and others protesting lack of access to United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in August 1995.

Denver's Crucial Role: The Gang of 19 and ADAPT

From July 5-6, 1978, a group of 19 disabled individuals, including ten women, from the Atlantis/ADAPT community blocked the intersection of Broadway and Colfax in downtown Denver to protest against the lack of wheelchair accessibility for RTD buses. The activists, who became known as the “Gang of 19,” stopped traffic and chanted “We will ride!” until the city and RTD agreed to make buses accessible to people who used wheelchairs. The group’s actions made Denver the first city in the United States to have a fully accessible public transit system.

American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT) grew out of the “Gang of 19” protest and started in Denver. According to their website, ADAPT “is a national grassroots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom.” The group’s efforts would continue in 1990 with the Capitol Crawl in Washington, D. C., when disabled activists climbed the Capitol steps to protest the delay in signing the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Capitol Crawl activists included 8-year-old Denverite Jennifer Keelan Chaffins (b. 1981), now a disability rights educator and speaker. The act passed four months later, on July 26, 1990.

Denver’s ADAPT Legacy Lives On

On June 27, 2017, Dawn Russell (b. 1965), an organizer for the nonprofit Atlantis Community Inc., ADAPT’s sister organization, led a protest at U.S. Senator Cory Gardner’s downtown Denver office. The activists demanded “no” votes from politicians who wanted to repeal parts of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), including cutting funds and access to home-based services for people with disabilities. The protesters remained in Gardner’s office for nearly 58 hours and ten activists were arrested, including Russell. The bill was eventually pulled because it lacked enough Republican support. Russell continues to advocate through her work with ADAPT on issues like the passage of the Disability Integration Act. The bill prohibits government entities and insurance providers from denying community-based services to individuals with disabilities who require long-term support.

Members of the "Gang of 19"

  • Linda Chism-Andre
  • Renate Rabe-Conrad
  • Willy Cornelison
  • Mary Ann Sisneros
  • Carolyn Finnell
  • George Roberts
  • Mel Conrardy
  • Bobby Simpson
  • Debbie Tracy
  • Jeannie Joyce
  • Kerry Schott
  • Jim Lundvall
  • Lori Heezen
  • Glenn Kopp
  • Bob Conrad
  • Larry Ruiz
  • Cindy Dunn
  • Paul Brady
  • Terri Fowler

Protest sign reading “You can’t have sex in a nursing home” taped to the back of a protester’s wheelchair at the ADAPT protest of the American Health Care Association’s 1994 Las Vegas convention.

Continuing the Fight for Equality

In addition to the Disability Integration Act, on January 13, 2022, California Democratic Congressman Jimmy Panetta introduced H.R. 6405, The Marriage Equality for Disabled Adults Act, a bill that would eliminate what are informally called “marriage penalties.” The bill would focus on a group of disabled people, those on Social Security Disability (SSDI) as “Disabled Adult Child,” or DAC. The bill centers on a group of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare rules that make getting married financially and medically impractical or impossible for many people with disabilities.

Disability Rights