by Gabby Cushman
The story of one girl’s fight for disability rights
July is Disability Pride Month, a celebratory month that often goes overlooked by people outside the disabled community. It recognizes the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26th, 1990, and is a time for those with disabilities to feel proud of their unique selves. If you’re wondering how you can play a part in Disability Pride Month along with your little ones, a great way is to learn the story of Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins and the Capitol Crawl, which was integral in getting the ADA signed into law.
Jennifer was born as a premature baby in 1981 in the state of Michigan. At age two, her caretakers learned that she had cerebral palsy. The CDC defines cerebral palsy as “a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.” Doctors believed she would have significant trouble with movement, talking, and learning. As her family began to learn more about Jennifer’s disability, they quickly became a part of the disability rights movement, as did Jennifer herself at a very young age. She attended her first protest at six, led by ADAPT (the American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today), to advocate for better accessibility nationwide. The following year when she was seven, Jennifer was arrested along with fellow peaceful demonstrators for blocking the entrance to a hotel in Montreal to protest their accessibility issues. Yet her most infamous demonstration was crucial in getting Congress to listen to the disabled community’s concerns.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.” According to the law, a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Getting the ADA signed into law was an uphill battle for disability rights activists. The law, built on the foundations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, had stalled in Congress for months and was awaiting approval before it could be implemented. By March 1990, the ADAPT was ready to mobilize a call for immediate action from Congress.
The 1990 Capitol Crawl
The Capitol Crawl took place on March 12th, 1990, on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Over 1,000 protesters gathered to urge Congress to pass the ADA, chanting “What do we want?” “ADA!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!” After speeches from leaders in the disability rights movement, over 60 activists began to cast aside their mobility-assistance devices and crawl up the 78 steps towards the Capitol building. One of those activists was Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, only eight years old at the time. The climb took her almost an hour to complete, other activists providing her with water as she continued her ascent. She famously proclaimed, “I’ll take all night if I have to.” The demonstration by Jennifer and the other disability activists showcased their determination to fight to end disability discrimination and caught the attention of a stalled Congress. Four months later, the ADA was passed and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, which marked the beginning of celebrating Disability Pride Month.
The story of Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, the Capitol Crawl, and the signing of the ADA is crucial to understanding Disability Pride Month. Not only to educate children on disability rights but also to show them that they can be a catalyst for change at any age. If you or your little one is interested in learning more about Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, the official illustrated biography of her life titled “All the Way to the Top” is available now on her website: jkclegacy.com/book.
For more ways to bring social justice to the little ones in your life, sign up for the LJL newsletter here.