Search This Blog

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Legend of Larry Ruiz

"My mind is completely intact".

These are the words of Larry Ruiz. He was interviewed via email by Fred Pelka and his words appear in Pelka's book What Have We Done. In my estimation Pelka's book is the richest and most detailed discussion of the ADA. It is not a book for the light hearted. This is a 622 page tomb for those intimately familiar with the creation and passage of the ADA. In Pelka's chapter about ADAPT he provides a few biographical portraits of key figures such as Ruiz,  Mark Johnson, Barbara Toomer, Babs Johnson, and Michael Auberger.

Ruiz spent his entire childhood in institutions. In 1972 at the age of 18 he was sent to the infamous Heritage House in Lakewood, CO. Almost all the young residents of Heritage House grew up in institutions. In fact, Ruiz spent almost half his life in institutions. Conditions in Heritage House were substandard.  Heritage House was far from unusual--conditions in such institutions for the handicapped were more often than not substandard (the most notorious being Willow Brook Institution). Ruiz recalled:

I lived there [Heritage House] on a huge wing with other children and adults for three years. Most of the people in the youth wing also grew up in institutions, and we did not realize that we were living in substandard conditions. We were treated poorly, and all our state benefits went straight to the nursing home. We were given an allowance of twenty-five dollars per month.
We had an activities director for youth named Wade Blank. He helped us form a residents council. Wade discovered that there were a lot things we could do for entertainment. We saw shows such as Elvis, the Who and the Grateful Dead. Our eyes were opened to the outside world., and we began to grow restless. Wade had the vision of us being able to live on our own. He helped us realize this possibility. 

Ruiz escaped Heritage House and lived independently for over 35 years. He was a founding member of ADAPT, an organizer of Atlantis, member of the Gang of 19, and was arrested over 60 times at various actions. In the Denver Post obituary for Ruiz, Barry Rosenberg stated "Larry was a real icon, and I think he holds the world record for being arrested for his advocacy efforts on behalf of other people with disabilities". In the same obituary Julie Farrar stated that Ruiz fundamentally changed the way she perceived disability. She noted "the amazing thing about Larry is that he was always optimistic. There were times when I saw him struggle, but he didn't have a sense of resentment. He put all his energy into change, into achieving a higher social justice for everyone. It is amazing someone with his past, all those years in an institution, could use that for good".

I find it hard to imagine what Ruiz endured. He spent a lifetime telling others his mind was "completely intact". No doubt the assaults on his concept of self were relentless throughout his life. Escaping from a nursing home is a major accomplishment by itself but his contributions did not end there. Like many people with a disability who put their bodies on the line, civil disobedience is not only effective but creates an amazing sense of empowerment. This I get. Michael Auberger, co-founder of ADAPT along with Wade Blank and others, recalled APTA protests in Washington DC circa 1984.

One of the most empowering things that happened was to convince somebody that they could stop a bus. Here's a sixty-ton bus that all of a sudden doesn't move because somebody's sitting in front of it, somebody's sitting behind it so it couldn't back up. (That was another of the things we learned early on, that you can't just block the front of the bus, because they will back up). You can't talk about putting lifts on buses, and all the other things that came out of what we did, but I think the most amazing thing was the empowerment and self-esteem that people ended up taking home with them. To watch someone who had been institutionalized, is now out in the community but still struggling to survive, and accepting the handouts, to see somebody in that situation sitting in front of a bus and telling a police officer "No, I'm not moving. You had to tell people "Don't smile when you're saying these things, this is a serious issue", but all of a sudden you've got somebody who's feeling their oats, who's feeling like, "Wow, I just told a cop 'no, I'm not going to', and the bus is not moving, and it's not going anywhere because I can't ride it". As far as I am concerned that had more value than all the other things that we did and accomplished. People went from feeling powerless to being truly empowered. And those people were the people that went back home, talked about what they did, and organized around the issue, that felt like now they were somebody. You know, Jessie Jackson is always repeating the "I am somebody" chant. Well, it's one thing to say it, but it's a whole 'nother thing to feel it, and actually do it.

I love this quote and photograph above. Pictured are four people with a disability laying on the ground in sleeping bags in front of a Denver bus. Barricades and an empty wheelchair are in the background. I vividly recall that rush of empowerment long ago in Harlem as a graduate student at Columbia University when I stopped an MTA bus from moving along with a buddy. That is what people with a disability felt nationwide in the early 1980s when the fight to access mass transportation, especially buses, was dirty, nasty, and prolonged. I am sure that is the rush ADAPT members felt this past summer when they were arrested in the Capital building and elsewhere protesting health care cuts proposed by the GOP. This is why people with a  disability fight hard and do not compromise--think bare knuckles dirty. You see society does not expect us to get arrested, block buses, and chain ourselves to the entrance of buildings. There is the notion one should be kind to the handicapped. Well, if I have learned anything in my life it is that kindness kills. I don't want kindness, I want equality. That is what all people with a disability desire. Larry Ruiz knew this better than most. And yet this icon is largely unknown. Countless people who put their body on the line are equally unknown. This is unfathomable to me. It is also why I am forever proud I can seamlessly ride the bus in the city I now call home.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Gang of 19

A week ago I started delving into the papers of Wade and Molly Blank housed at Denver public library. The papers are extensive, well preserved, and professionally organized (a rarity when it comes to disability history). I have long been fascinated with the Gang of 19. These men and women started a national movement. I never met a member of the Gang of 19. I never met Wade Blank or his wife. I deeply regret this. I was revolving in a different circle back then when ADAPT was being formed and Blank was helping young people with a disability escape nursing homes. I was paralyzed in 1978 and miserable when the Gang of 19 formed. I was angry like the Gang of 19. I hated how people treated me. In response, when I arrived at college I drank too much and smoked way too much pot. I had spent a decade in and out of various neurological wards and found myself paralyzed and medically stable for the first time in a decade. I was going to have fun and make up for all the time I lost in hospitals. In the haze of alcohol and pot I simmered and seethed. I knew at a guttural level the way I was treated was fundamentally wrong.  I wanted to embrace my people. I had no idea how to do this. I tried sports. I joined the wheelchair basketball team the Flying Dutchmen. I was a terrible basketball player. I had no idea how to play. It did not help that I weighed in at a whopping 100 pounds and was skinny as a rail. I had fun on the team but sports was not the way I wanted to connect with others. I needed a productive outlet and somehow became an EPVA bus buddy in NYC. It was on the streets of New York that I was able to vent my anger.

The first time i saw this plaque I laughed. The RTD fought tooth and nail against lifts on buses. This did not make the RTD unique. Every major bus line and mass transit system has viscously opposed wheelchair access. The fight to make mass transit accessible was nasty, mean spirited and in some cases violent. Acts of civil disobedience started in Denver and spread nationwide. Going through the Wade and Molly Blank papers I found clippings from newspapers across the nation. Wheelchair users chained their bodies and wheelchairs to bus fenders. Some got out of their wheelchairs and lay their bodies in front of inaccessible buses. I was a small part of this effort. I was an EPVA bus buddy. Because I was able to get on an MTA bus with a lift just once I was deemed an expert. I was tagged with teaching other people who used a wheelchair how to get on an accessible bus of which there were very few. My fellow New Yorkers were not impressed. They were in fact openly hostile. I was spit on. I was pissed on. I was screamed at. Bus drivers cursed me out. Entire buses full of people booed me and others who had the nerve to try and do the ordinary--get on a bus. We wheelchair users quickly developed a two person buddy system in NYC.  We would hide behind a car or bus stop. When the bus came to a halt one of us would pop off the curb and hold onto the front bumper. The other person would ask for the ramp to be deployed. If the driver started to back up the other wheelchair user would rush to the rear, pop off the curb and we effectively trapped the bus. As the months passed drivers adapted as did we. Some drivers would break the ramp in front of and give us the finger. Other drivers would not pull near the bus stop or curb. Most drivers would blow by us and not stop.

No single person became well-known for their effort to get on the bus. We cripples have no Rosa Parks. Our effort to access mass transit is largely unknown. Disability rights is not taught in secondary schools. Disability rights is not taught at most universities. The disability rights movement is a stealth human rights effort. Worse, the ADA is under attack and aside from we people with a  disability no one seems to care. Like many, I am deeply embarrassed by our current president and the GOP. There are days when I find myself filled with despair. Why does the GOP cater to the ignorant and those filled with hate? Nearly 60% of Americans believe our current president is a racist. Tens of millions of people are uninsured and our health care system is grossly dysfunctional. Falling down the rabbit hole of depression seems an inevitable and reasonable response. Yet I have resisted this impulse with remarkable success.

A few weeks ago I went to a public screening of a PBS documentary about the Gang of 19 at Atlantis. Atlantis is the second oldest Independent Living Center in the United States. For those unfamiliar with Independent Living, check out the Atlantis website. Link: To say I was energized the night I saw the documentary Colorado Experience: The Gang of 19--the ADA Movement would be an understatement. I got to meet John Holland who was featured in the film and is a brilliant lawyer who takes on small entities like the federal government! Meeting him and others that night was a thrill. I found my people. I also found a project. The Gang of 19 has not earned its rightful place in disability history. Without the Gang of 19, I would not be able to get on any mass transit bus in this nation. In delving into the archive it was readily apparent they inspired a nationwide movement of ordinary citizens who had enough. We people with a disability pay taxes and had the right to board the bus. We had a right to access mass transit. Without that right employment, housing, and education were not possible. I was like millions of other people with a disability who expected to live a long life--a typical life. That life included the simple ability to get on a bus. In the 1970s this was radical thinking.

When I was done working in the Denver Public Library last week I walked to Colfax and Broadway where the above plaque is located. It was not the first time i have visited this spot. Each time I look at the plaque I bring a disposable rag. I wipe the bird shit of the plaque. Sometimes I leave flowers at the base of the plaque. The men and women who formed the Gang of 19 paid a heavy price for their activism. To the best of my knowledge, 18 of the 19 members of the Gang of 19 have died--people like Larry Ruiz who was among those that escaped the infamous Heritage House at the age of 21 with the help of Wade Blank. This man should be a legend. I think of him regularly because on occasion I see a young non verbal quad getting on the RTD light rail. I suspect this person is a student at the University of Denver. What is striking to me is how ordinary it is for this person to get on the train. She has an iPad and types out her destination. The first time I saw this person I thought how awkward it would be for her to do the ordinary. And then the ordinary happened. The train driver did not bat an eye. He simply looked at her iPad and stated her destination. The person nodded and off we went. I immediately thought of Atlantis. Named after the lost community of Atlantis, I felt at home perhaps for the first time in my life. Don't get me wrong. Denver has its share of problems like any other city. Access fails abound. Indeed, a few days after I went to Atlantis I was invited to out for drinks at the View House--a local bar near my home. There was not a single table in the restaurant that was accessible and at no point did the host acknowledge my existence. I walked out in anger.

Life with a disability is wildly unpredictable. Within the span of a few days or even minutes one can be treated equally or horribly. I am forever grateful I fell into the field of anthropology when I was an undergraduate seeking a philosophy of life that would empower me to fight against ever present ableism. What I take great solace in is that I am just one of many people with a disability who refuse to buckle to lower expectations and outright bigotry that is socially sanctioned. I am part of the resistance--albeit a small part of a much larger wheel. The Gang of 19 was the wheel hub from which spokes of protests and civil disobedience spread. To know I played my part brings me more satisfaction than anything else I have done in my life.

Below is the documentary. It is well worth an hour of your time.