This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.
Americans with disabilities have been protesting the Republicans’ health care proposals in Washington, DC, at GOP lawmakers offices around the country and even at Ivanka Trump’s home. One out of every five adults has a disability, according to a 2015 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In this Q&A, Sarah Jaffe speaks with Bruce Darling, an organizer with ADAPT, a national group that organizes disability activists, about why Americans with disabilities are so outraged by the Republicans’ new health care plan, including its major cuts to Medicaid, and what they plan to do next.
Sarah Jaffe: ADAPT has done a couple of rather dramatic direct actions around the new Republican health care proposal. You were part of the protest last month in Washington, DC, outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Bruce Darling: A group of almost 60 of us made the trek to DC with the intent of letting Congress know exactly how bad this bill is and that disabled Americans are not going to just accept it. We feel that, in part, they are targeting Medicaid and the services and supports we need because they think that we are not politically active or weak and they can basically get away with it. We wanted to send a message that that was not the case. A group of folks went into McConnell’s office. We could not all fit in and folks got out of their wheelchairs. Everyone got on the ground who could and we were basically dragged out by the Capitol Police.
SJ: Those photos and videos really got a lot of response. People were saying that the police dragging people out of their wheelchairs is an impressive visual demonstration of what this health care bill would do.
BD: Exactly. Disabled Americans will die, others will be forced into institutions and that will increase this terrible feedback loop because institutions are more expensive. With capped funds it will drive more money to the institutions, making less money available for health care and services and supports in the community. We wanted people to see it as the equivalent of basically being dragged off; the way they saw it on the news, that is actually what happens, even now with the Medicaid program as it is. The Republican health care plans will just make it far, far, far worse.
SJ: Medicaid is the main way that home health care is funded. That is the main thing that allows people to stay at home and not be put in an institution.
— Bruce Darling
BD: Right, and we wanted to highlight that using language that we thought, or hoped, Republicans would understand. There isn’t an asterisk on the Constitution that says “except disabled Americans.” We should have a birthright of life and liberty. Medicaid is the thing that actually pays for and supports our lives and our liberty in the community. So cutting that is actually cutting the lives and liberty of disabled Americans. It is killing disabled Americans. We really wanted to drive that point home.
SJ: Can you talk a little bit more about the specific services that Medicaid funds would decimate with this bill?
BD: The wheelchairs that people use to move around, the ventilators and feeding tubes that people use for breathing and nutrition. The assistance — whether it is home health aides or personal care attendants — that those people who come into our homes provide, such as helping us in and out of bed and helping us into the bathroom. They do our most personal care and allow us to live.
Then, on top of that, basically the medications and medical care that we rely on. The Senate health care bill proposes cutting Medicaid by three-quarters of a trillion dollars.
Those things will be cut at the state level, where they make these decisions. We see now how people who go without assistance get secondary conditions and they either end up in an institution or, in some cases, die. We watch that happen now and we just can’t sit back and let that happen to any more of our people.
SJ: Talk a little bit about the history of ADAPT and the history of the independent living movement, the organizing and activism that made this funding and consideration happen in the first place.
BD: ADAPT actually began as — and I am old enough to have been involved in that fight — the fight for lifts on buses. It is really interesting when you talk to young people now. They think, “Wow. Lifts on buses. Duh. Of course they have lifts.” But back in the 1980s, this was a controversial topic. People argued about whether or not there should be lifts on buses and whether disabled people should have access to public transit. This includes questions such as, “Do we need a special separate system so that we weren’t mixed in with the general population?”
We found that people were being denied the basic things that they needed to live their lives. They had to schedule their transportation well in advance. Some people were saying things like, “My aunt didn’t plan to die 14 days ahead of time. I need a way to get to her funeral.”
With that achieved, this part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was tied to the historic crawl up the steps [of the US Capitol, demanding passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act], ADAPT looked at what the next level issue was, and it was community integration.
— Bruce Darling
We have been fighting that fight now for around 27 years. You would think, honestly, it seems like it should be a no-brainer. Should disabled people be allowed to live in the community? Well, yes, of course. But, we have a lot of people who make money on the fact that we are locked up in institutions and those people make [political] contributions and it has been a real tough road for us to get that issue through to people.
SJ: In addition to the action in DC, there was a sit-in in Sen. Cory Gardner’s office in Colorado. What are some other actions that ADAPT have been involved in leading up to this health care bill?
BD: We were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda, back earlier in the process in March. This has been named “The Summer of ADAPT,” because we have been arrested so many times and in so many different places that our heads are spinning from keeping track of all of the court dates and the fines and the processing. Then, earlier in the year, we did a national action and highlighted these issues at the White House, where we were arrested as well. After they were processed out of the White House a group of women who were arrested went to Ivanka Trump’s house to carry a message there.
We have taken our message about community integration everywhere we can, to say, “These cuts to Medicaid will just reinforce the system that forces us into institutions and kills us.”
SJ: Was Ivanka home?
BD: Their son was and that was really actually kind of cool, because I got a bunch of text messages from folks saying, “The son is waving at us!” Everyone was really excited and the response from everyone in the street was very sweet. The energy of that group could only have been because a group of women got together and did this. They did a great job in terms of engaging the child who was very excited to see them. But Ivanka was not willing to talk to them.
SJ: That is disappointing.
BD: It really is, because we think the issue that we are fighting is a women’s issue, really, when you think about it. Women are the informal caregivers and they are the formal caregivers. By and large, they are the folks who end up in nursing facilities. We are fighting for the rights of women to live free.
SJ: What actions do you have coming up?
BD: We are protesting everywhere. It is incredible to watch. We have had protests from Fairbanks, Alaska to Orlando, Florida to Portland, Maine and right now, as we speak [Wednesday, July 5], there are a group of people protesting at [Republican] Sen. Jeff Flake’s office in Phoenix.
— Bruce Darling
The message is: They are not leaving until they get a “no” vote, which is what happened in Portland, Maine. One of the things people should know is when Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said, or her staff said, “No is no,” when they had a “no” vote, the protesters essentially celebrated their victory and left. Sen. Gardner, on the other hand, wouldn’t actually engage the disabled protestors, so they ended up staying days in his office and then ended up being arrested. We are willing to put our bodies on the line, because our lives and liberty are on the line.
SJ: Other than Collins, have any other senators engaged with you or had any sort of useful dialogue with you?
BD: No. We have reached out and we have tried. Even the lack of dialogue, however, has been useful. It has allowed us to highlight this issue for people, the fact that we are being arrested is raising the consciousness of folks that this is an attack on Medicaid. It has been lost in the rhetoric about [repealing] Obamacare, which is in and of itself atrocious; but then, no one had been talking about these attacks on Medicaid. Word has gotten out to folks that this is cutting the basic supports that disabled Americans, as well as elderly Americans, need to live. People are pretty appalled by that and even some ardent Trump voters have said, “That is not what I voted for.” We are hopeful about the protests.
SJ: How can people keep up with ADAPT and with you?
BD: Follow us on Twitter. We are @NationalADAPT. We have the website www.adapt.org. The hashtag that we are using is #adaptandresist. You can see up-to-the-minute information from folks about protests happening all over the country. This is going to be a busy week for us, so it is a good time to follow. You can follow me at @ADAPTerBruce.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.