Love is Advocating for Accessible Public Transit

Easterseals Love and Relationships. Collage of various adults, children, showing love by hugging and talking

By Mike Ervin

Every once in a while, I have what I call a “green-bus nightmare”: I’m out and about and all of a sudden, a public transit bus goes by and it’s painted green and there are three big steps inside the front door — so it’s inaccessible as hell for someone who uses a wheelchair, like me.

The public transit buses in Chicago are much different today. They’re painted white, red and blue and inside the front door is a ramp that flips out onto the curb when the driver flips a switch so a wheelchair user can roll right in.

Man using a wheelchair and driving up a public bus liftSo in my nightmare, I’m mad as a hornet when I see the green bus go by. I say to myself, “What the hell is this? I thought those inaccessible buses were long gone!”

And then I wake up and realize it was just a bad dream.

But that’s how things were in Chicago prior to 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. The ADA requires that all public transit buses put into service must be wheelchair accessible. But without any federal mandate like that, there wasn’t a single accessible bus in the street fleet of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). You can imagine how frustrating that was for anyone who didn’t have the physical ability to board CTA buses. It was as if the CTA system didn’t even exist. To give people today some context on that situation, I ask people to imagine that the entire CTA system is suddenly and indefinitely shut down! How would that impact their lives? How would they get around? How isolated, abandoned and angry would they feel?

This is why I became an activist. I graduated from college in 1978 and I was living with my mother and sister in the house in which I was raised. The house was on a main street and a green CTA bus passed by several times a day. Come about 1983 or so, I began hearing word-of-mouth tales from other disabled folks about a group of disabled activists in Denver, Colorado who called themselves American Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation (ADAPT). There were public transit buses with wheelchair lifts in operation in Denver mostly because ADAPT organized aggressive protests where people in wheelchairs did things like surround inaccessible buses that were on the street waiting at intersections. The protesters wouldn’t move for several hours so the bus couldn’t move either. And sometimes ADAPTers even got arrested for protesting like that.

Right around that same time, a man from Chicago named Kent Jones, who used a wheelchair, went to Denver to attend an ADAPT organizing training for people from around the country. When he returned, he called a meeting for the purpose of organizing a local chapter of ADAPT.

I attended the meeting because I was mad. Hearing about the exploits of Denver ADAPT forever changed my perspective on those green buses that passed my house daily. I now saw them as an essential public facility as much as city hall or the library. Thus, I was mad at myself that I wasn’t as mad a lot sooner as I was now about what the inaccessibility of that public facility meant. It meant that if I wanted to go somewhere, I either had to spend a lot of money purchasing a vehicle and adapting it to be accessible, spend a lot of money hiring an accessible vehicle such as a med-i-car, to take me there or just forget about it and not go. But if my neighbors who weren’t wheelchair users wanted to go somewhere, all they had to do was wait at the bus stop. And that meant that those who designed the CTA thought that disabled people like me never could or should use it.

The ADAPT principle of direct-action protest says that you take your demands directly to the person or entity that has the power to meet your demands. In our case, that was the seven-member CTA board of directors. Four are appointed by the mayor of Chicago and three are appointed by the governor of Illinois.

So for our first action, we attended one of their monthly public board meetings where all of their decisions are made. We presented our demands and the first one was that every bus that they ordered from now on must be equipped with a wheelchair lift. We disrupted the meeting with chanting and noisemakers to demonstrate our resolve.

Love is Advocating for Accessible Public Transit

ADAPT protesters during the lead up to the passage of the ADA.

But the CTA board voted unanimously not to include lifts on any new buses. So we continued disrupting their meetings, blocking traffic in our wheelchairs so buses couldn’t get through and staging similarly aggressive but nonviolent protests. Sometimes we got arrested. We also pursued a discrimination lawsuit against the CTA with the help of pro-bono lawyers.

The lawsuit eventually went to trial and in January of 1988, the judge who presided over the trial ruled that CTA illegally discriminated against the disabled under state law by not having any mainline accessibility. Shortly after that, the CTA board, which now had a member who was a wheelchair user who was an ardent ADAPT supporter and had been appointed by Mayor Hafold Washington, voted 6-1 to equip future buses with wheelchair lifts.

And shortly after that, the ADA was signed.

When I reflect on all this, I feel our campaign to make public transit accessible was motivated by love — love for ourselves as people with disabilities and love for the disabled community. It’s true that we simply wanted more freedom to travel independently. But there was much more to it than that. It was so important to us because we were insulted that we were being denied a basic freedom just because we were disabled. We loved and respected ourselves and each other too much to accept the notion that we deserved and should settle for less because of our disabilities. We deserved to be accommodated and included and we wouldn’t take no for an answer.

We also hoped that bringing about this change would pay dividends far into the future, not just by making it easier for further generators of disabled people to get from one place to another but by lessening the debilitating sting of disability stigma, which is so often used to rationalize exclusion. The more we are a natural element of the daily routines of people whose lives aren’t affected by disability, the less they will be inclined to believe that we don’t deserve to be among them. And hopefully that has made and will make it easier for others to break down the many other walls of disability segregation.

A famous quote by Che Guevara is, “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Regardless of one’s opinion of Che Guevara, he was sure right about that.

Mike Ervin is a writer and disability-rights activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for the Progressive magazine and writes the blog Smart Ass Cripple.



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