Disability rights activist Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins abandoned her wheelchair at the age of eight to crawl up the Capitol steps, compelling Congress to pass a landmark civil rights law that removed barriers and increased access for those with disabilities.
“Doing the Capitol Crawl—it wasn’t just to proclaim my rights, but it was also to proclaim [the rights of] my generation and future generations of kids with disabilities.”
Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, an eight-year-old disability rights activist, joined Wheels of Justice March on an unusually humid day in March 1990. Activists from 30 states traveled to Washington DC to demand Congress immediately pass the stalled Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with no weakened amendments. Nearly 500 activists marched from the White House to the Capitol, with another 250 activists joining at the Capitol steps marking the largest demonstration ever by people with different abilities.
At the base of the Capitol, the activists discarded their mobility aids and lifted themselves onto the Capitol steps to begin what history would remember as the “Capitol Crawl.”
“We were united, and we spoke with one voice as to why it was so important to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and why this was a civil rights issue,” Jennifer reflected. “That’s where our strength came from.”
In a strategy meeting held before the march, several organizers, including Jennifer, committed to abandoning their wheelchairs and climbing the Capitol steps to demonstrate the daily struggles of disabled people.
But some of the adult organizers discouraged her participation. She recalls: “One [reason] was because it was 84 steps, and they thought it would be too difficult for me because I was a child. Two, they were concerned that having a child do the Capitol Crawl would actually portray disabled people as children and pity-like.”
As Jennifer watched her fellow activists begin their climb without her, she grew visibly upset. Rev. Wade Blank from the grassroots disability rights group ADAPT approached her. Wade founded ADAPT in 1975 to call attention to the difficulty that those with disabilities encountered, employing strategies like the crawl tactic Jennifer eagerly hoped to join that day at the Capitol.
“He and I had a heart-to-heart discussion,” said Jennifer. “I told him: ‘Wade, I really want to crawl up the steps because I want to make sure that not only am I going to do this for myself, but I want to do it for others. I want to do it for all the other kids that aren’t here. I want to be able to speak up for them and speak up for future generations.’ He turned to me, and he said, ‘Well, then you need to do what’s in your heart.’”
And she did. Jennifer joined the 60 other protestors who pulled themselves up the steps of the west Capitol entrance.
Despite the challenges Jennifer faced, she climbed, pausing only for sips of water; puffs from her inhaler to relieve her asthma; and wiped her bleeding lip, which she hit on a step during the journey.
“For an eight-year-old, climbing 84 steps, that’s like doing Mount Everest,” said Jennifer.
But she never thought about stopping, and neither did her family, “We began fighting probably from the time she was diagnosed,” said Cynthia Keelan, Jennifer’s mother.
Born into a world that refused to accommodate her needs, Jennifer and her family tirelessly fought against unrelenting discrimination. In 1982, when Cynthia received Jennifer’s diagnosis, doctors counseled them to give Jennifer up for adoption or place her in a facility, claiming that was the only place that could meet all her needs. But Jennifer and her family refused to accept a world that separated Jennifer from her family and denied her equal rights. So they outfitted their home and the community to support Jennifer’s needs.
Jennifer’s grandfather, Chuck, even involved the community in removing barriers, like when he grabbed a few of his friends and went to the Elk’s Club in downtown Wickenburg, Arizona—a frequent haunt of his—to build a wheelchair-accessible ramp, today known as “Jennifer’s Ramp.” They worked through the night to ensure that Chuck, Jennifer, and Jennifer’s sister Kailee could spend time together at the Elk’s Club.
Though Jennifer’s family was incredibly supportive, the rest of the world was not. Driven by the knowledge that 30.6 million disabled people lacked services and support to participate in life, Jennifer and her family became active members of the disability rights movement. They attended protests with ADAPT, wrote to politicians, and worked to educate their community.
ADAPT succeeded in getting local laws passed to prohibit discrimination; however, the laws were often not enforceable nor expansive enough. Nearly every day, Jennifer and her fellow activists were reminded why they fought for the rights of those with disabilities. Following one protest in Phoenix, Arizona, Jennifer, and her fellow activists decided to eat at a restaurant.
“We were denied service because they said that we would make the other patrons uncomfortable, and nobody wanted to watch us eat,” reflects Jennifer.
Even public transportation was off-limits to people with disabilities. Jennifer remembers attempting to board a bus as a child: “The bus driver said, “Lady, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to carry both your kids in the stroller up the bus because the lift is bolted down, it’s only there to look like we’re complying.’”
“As I was doing the Capitol Crawl, I remembered all those things that I had experienced,” Jennifer reflected. “The denial of getting on the bus, the denial of service for eating at a restaurant, being separated from my sister both on the bus and at school. I remembered all those things.”
As eight-year-old Jennifer pulled herself up each step, she declared she would climb all night if she had to. Surrounded by fellow activists cheering her along, Jennifer felt supported, and attendants were on hand to help disabled activists throughout the crawl.
Jennifer reached the top of the steps that day and her courageous act induced Congress to act. The Senate passed the ADA less than four months later and signed it into law shortly after that.
The expansive law, modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, grants people with disabilities equal access to fundamental rights, including employment, education, transportation, communications, participation in state and local government programs and services, and more.
Now nearly 40, Jennifer continues to be an advocate and activist driven by her words to the press that day at the Capitol Crawl: “I just want to be treated like a human being.”