Disability activists explain why they would “Rather go to jail than die without Medicaid”

By Erin Coleman

Dawn Russell (left) and Dawn Howard (right) laugh as they listen to a song by fellow ADAPT activist Kalyn Heffernan’s band, Wheelchair Sports Camp. Credit: Erin Coleman

Dawn Russell (left) and Dawn Howard (right) laugh as they listen to a song by fellow ADAPT activist Kalyn Heffernan’s band, Wheelchair Sports Camp. Credit: Erin Coleman

Dawn Russell is certain that without the home and community-based services she receives through Medicaid, not only would she lose valuable opportunities; she would lose her sense of self. 

“Without those services, I could make it, uh… 24, 48 hours, in an extreme situation. When I say ‘survive,’ I [just] mean survive. I wouldn’t be Dawn,” she said.

Russell’s friend and fellow activist, Dawn Howard, has Cerebral Palsy (CP) as well. “I don’t use home and community-based services. I just feel strongly about fighting with people. It’s a civil right,” said Howard. 

Howard and Russell were among nine members of the activist organization American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT) who camped out in Senator Cory Gardner’s Denver office from Tuesday, June 27, through Thursday, June 29, when the demonstration aimed at securing Gardner’s promise to oppose the Senate healthcare bill ended in their arrest. 

“I’m 50 years old and I’m just starting to get riled up,” said Howard. “I’d never gotten a ticket before in my life, and now, [since joining ADAPT in January] I’ve gotten four.”

ADAPT is a national organization that was born in Colorado. In 1978, the “gang of nineteen,” who would later help found ADAPT, led its first campaign to address discrimination in public transit systems. Their effort resulted in a human barricade that stalled buses and closed the Colfax and Broadway intersection. 

While she remains committed to ADAPT’s mission of advocating for home and community-based services, Howard has additional personal concerns about insurance limitations for individuals with pre-existing conditions that might result from efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

“I do have a condition for which I have to have upper endoscopies every few years, or I start to choke,” said Howard. “It has nothing to do with CP.”

“And right there is kind of the crux of things,” said Russell. “You would die if you couldn’t get that treatment.”

“Before the ACA, I could never have worked here,” said Howard, referencing her job as Community Organizer at Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. “There wasn’t any way for me to be insured.”

Personal experience has shown Howard that Medicaid issues extend far beyond disability. 

“I think every time we opened our mouths in Senator Gardner’s office, we would say, ‘Seniors and people with disabilities,’” said Russell. “[Seniors] need those services [too].” 

“Rather go to jail than die without Medicaid,” the activists chanted while carrying signs emblazoned with the slogan, “Our homes, not nursing homes!”

Dawn Russell is arrested June 22, 2017, following an action at Senator Mitch McConnell’s office in Washington DC. ADAPT activists traveled to DC to speak with McConnell about their concerns regarding healthcare legislation. Credit: Dawn Russell

Dawn Russell is arrested June 22, 2017, following an action at Senator Mitch McConnell’s office in Washington DC. ADAPT activists traveled to DC to speak with McConnell about their concerns regarding healthcare legislation. Credit: Dawn Russell

ADAPT members are concerned that if the Medicaid budget cuts outlined in the healthcare bill were approved, home and community-based services would be eliminated.

An activist’s schedule varies drastically to that of a nursing home, which is one of the many reasons Russell is advocating to promote continued Medicaid funding for Consumer Directed Attendant Services (CDAS) programs like the one she uses herself.

Without the freedom to set her own schedule, Russell said, “I would live someone else’s life, not my own.”

“If you ask the members [of ADAPT], no one is in charge,” said Robbie Roppolo, who acted as a runner bringing food and supplies for the sit-in. “But Dawn Russell has a lot of qualities that are admirable in a leader.” 

He says Russell’s determined personality drew him to the cause.

“Dawn Russell is a fierce woman. [She] has more endurance than most able-bodied people,” said Roppolo. “She doesn’t just sit back and tell you what to do--she’s right there in it.”

“There are leaders, people who know a lot,” said Howard, pointing a thumb in Russell’s direction, “but we do things together. I had a sneaking feeling there would be people waiting when I got out of jail at [approximately] 1 a.m., and, sure enough, there were 20 [or] 25 people.”

ADAPT activists camped out in Cory Gardner’s Denver office for two days, saying they wouldn’t leave until the senator promised to vote “no” on the Senate healthcare bill. Credit: Dawn Russell.

ADAPT activists camped out in Cory Gardner’s Denver office for two days, saying they wouldn’t leave until the senator promised to vote “no” on the Senate healthcare bill. Credit: Dawn Russell.

Howard was the first to be taken for booking at the Denver Detention Center.

“I won’t ever forget what that felt like,” said Russell. “Because we had some sort of sense that we were together, and they plucked her away from us. That really affected us because we wanted to be with her.” 

Howard was led to the general holding area. 

“I was told that I could just put my mat on the floor, if getting on the top bunk was going to be difficult,” said Howard.

Meanwhile, Russell and the other activists in wheelchairs were taken to a special care section. 

 “There was an odd number, so I took the cell by myself,” said Russell. “I thought that was good, because I was singing the whole time, and I can’t sing.”

Roppolo helped organize an around-the-clock vigil outside the detention center where the activists were held for nearly 30 hours. 

“When there’s an action, there’s talk of who is going to go the distance,” Roppolo said. “No one is forced. They’re very clear about that, and they stress the importance of the other roles.”

Although the sit-in did not have the activists’ desired effect of persuading Gardner to vote “no” on the healthcare bill, it did persuade the senator to arrange a phone call with them a couple weeks later.

“No matter what those side things are that go on around us… we manage to stay laser-focused when we’re talking about what our issue is,” said Russell. “We are this vast group of amazing people that have other thoughts; but, when we put on our armor, it is to do ADAPT work.” ■