Crawling toward equality

By Dorian Esper-Taylor Disability Equity Specialist, Office of Equity and Social Justice and Jennifer Mechem, ADA/Civil Rights Section Manager, Office of Equity and Social Justice 

Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) being signed into law on July 26, 1990.

One of the most influential civil rights marches was not a march, it was a crawl. Part of a series of demonstrations that included all forms of mobility, the Capitol Crawl on March 12, 1990, was a key moment in the path to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Two of the sixty protesters who crawled up the steps of the Capitol when the ADA was stalled in Congress. Photo: Tom Olin

Collectively as a society, we view civil protest through the lens of ableism. Systemically and historically, demonstrations are often not accessible. But people with disabilities were leading a new civil rights movement and redefining what protest looked like. In 1977, they had organized the longest sit-in in U.S. history to push the government to sign the first disability civil rights law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In 1990, massive public protests to support passage of the ADA required collective unity and that no person be left behind. Over 1,000 people made their way to the Capitol on March 11, 2011, to demonstrate when the ADA was stalled in the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.

Tired of being marginalized and pitied, the activists began these demonstrations with people chaining their wheelchairs together in the Capitol Rotunda. The most significant of these demonstrations happened the next day, on March 12, over a thousand people planned to demonstrate outside the White House. ADAPT (formerly known as American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit) wanted a demonstration that would not only display the struggles that people with mobility disabilities face, they wanted a demonstration that would shock people and defy the stereotypes of people with disabilities. They organized approximately 60 people to crawl up the Capitol steps to highlight the inaccessibility and the need for the ADA. Tossing their mobility aids aside, people crawled their way up towards the Capitol. 

These demonstrations shattered stereotypes of people with disabilities, especially mobility disabilities, in every way. Instead of quiet and in the corner, there were loud demonstrations of civil disobedience. The news coverage of the Capitol Crawl brought national attention to the struggles of the 43 million Americans with disabilities. The New York Times showed a photograph of a man dragging himself and his chair up the steps, and the Los Angeles Times highlighted the more than hundred people arrested that week.

One of the people arrested was Cynthia Keelan, the mother of the youngest activist seen crawling up the steps. Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins was just eight years old. “Even though I was quite young, I realized that as one of the very few kids that got to be involved in this movement…it wasn’t just about myself, but it was about them as well.” 

While the protests to pass the ADA continued for a week, the Capitol Hill protests were the most influential in changing public opinion and getting the votes to pass the law. At last, it was passed and the ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on January 26, 1990. 

Learn more about the Capitol Crawl

March 12, 1990: Disability Rights Activists Make “Capitol Crawl” for the ADA – Zinn Education Project (

Crawling up steps to demand their rights | ShareAmerica.

The ADA Legacy Project: Moments in Disability History 27: A Magna Carta and the Ides of March to the ADA (