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Members of the Gang of 19 protesting inaccessible RTD buses on July 1978 in Denver. Photo courtesy of the Denver Post via Getty Images

How Denver’s Disability Activists Transformed the City

Forty years ago, disability activists stopped traffic at the corner of Broadway and Colfax Avenue and changed the way the United States works. But that wasn’t the start—or the end—of their civil rights fight.

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“Are you in?”

It was a simple question, but Jacqueline Mitchell’s response would have consequences. Her friend, Dawn Russell, knew it—which was why she needed an answer. “Are you in?” Russell asked again into the phone. “If you are in, you’re upstairs.” It was June 26, 2017, and if Mitchell said yes, she would join other disability rights activists in a protest the following day at U.S. Senator Cory Gardner’s office in a downtown Denver skyscraper. Some 1,600 miles away in Washington, D.C., the Senate was poised to vote on a bill that would repeal parts of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA). If passed, the bill could, among other things, cut funding and access to home-based services for people with disabilities.

Across the country, members of American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT) would demand “no” votes from politicians. In Denver, ADAPT activists hoped to converge in the building’s lobby and, if possible, send members to the fifth floor and into the senator’s office to ask for his vote against the bill.

In ADAPT speak, going “upstairs” meant Mitchell would be willing to participate in a nonviolent direct action. That could include sitting in the office for hours, or even days, chanting, “Free Our People.” It also meant Mitchell might be arrested. Both Mitchell and Russell had “taken arrests” at protests, usually for misdemeanors like trespassing, so the two friends knew what was at stake.

“Oh, I’m in,” Mitchell said. “I’ll do it.”

The next day, ADAPT activists arrived at 1125 17th Street. As planned, some protestors stayed downstairs while Russell, Mitchell, and others headed up to Gardner’s office. The senator was in D.C., but the group sat in the waiting room hoping to get word on his voting plan from his staff. An hour turned into two, and then the vote was delayed. The group still didn’t have an answer from Gardner, so they stayed—for nearly 58 hours.

The sit-in made local headlines as the group slept, chanted, and ate in the cramped office (a Denver Post reporter was in the room for most of the time). But the images of Russell and others being arrested, zip-tied, and carried away by police had an international impact. If, as the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words, Russell’s body shouted. This is how ADAPT works—it is how it has always worked. “We didn’t dream all this up,” Russell says. “We just showed up and repeated what was done 40 years ago.”

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ADAPT member Dawn Russell being arrested at U.S. Senator Cory Gardner’s Denver office on June 29, 2017. Photo courtesy of Helen H. Richardson/ the Denver Post via Getty Images

The automatic sliding doors at Atlantis Community in the Baker neighborhood open and close with such frequency that their wheeze sounds as if it’s the building’s heartbeat. In the entryway, Dawn Russell is quiet as she stares at the words and pictures that cover the walls. It’s an assortment of newspaper clippings, black-and-white photographs, and notes protected by plexiglass. Each tells a bit of the story Russell is set to recount.

A practiced bard, Russell narrates the history of how Atlantis, an independent living center for people who self-identify as having disabilities, was formed. She’s done this tour so many times that she knows when to pause for effect, to ask her listeners to lean closer, to make them see beauty in struggle. Her voice has a hypnotic effect: The words, dates, acronyms, and names all bubble up with emotion that ranges from pain to joy. She moves constantly, flowing from place to place with a tap of her finger against her wheelchair’s steering mechanism. Tap, whirr. Tap, whirr.

Russell talks about how four decades ago, a group of disability activists stopped Denver traffic for two days at the intersection of Broadway and Colfax Avenue. At the time, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) aimed to connect the metro region. But most buses weren’t handicapped-accessible, so the promise of mobility didn’t apply if instead of strolling, you rolled. The group had asked RTD to update the entire fleet with lifts, but progress was slow. They were tired of waiting.

On July 5, 1978, the activists, who became known as the Gang of 19, lay down on the asphalt at the busy intersection. In the center of a city they couldn’t easily access with their wheelchairs, the gang chanted “We Will Ride!”—until Denver and RTD promised to adapt. As a result, Russell says, the city would get the nation’s first accessible public transportation system.

Today, a plaque at the intersection commemorates the protest, but Russell says that isn’t where the story begins. Tap, whirr. Tap, whirr. Russell keeps moving until she stops at a dark photograph of a 21-year-old man lying in a bed. He’s dying. “The movement started right inside a nursing home,” Russell says.

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The man is Denver poet Michael Smith. His body was significantly immobilized because of muscular dystrophy, but his mind roamed with freewheeling verses about love, nature, and freedom. Smith lived in a nursing home, which is where he met Wade Blank, who worked there as an orderly and youth coordinator. Blank was a civil rights activist and Presbyterian minister (he had a master’s in the theology of rock music) who rambled to Denver from Ohio in the early 1970s looking for something different.

Back then, nursing homes were often the only option for people with limited mobility and disabilities that required regular medical attention, unless a family had the financial resources to hire personal medical staff. (At-home care was not yet a viable option due to a dearth of training and funding for such services.) Smith didn’t have time to wait for systematic change; he wanted to live on his own before he died. The trouble was that Smith needed a ventilator, and the world wasn’t exactly accessible for wheelchairs or rolling beds. Blank could get Smith out of the nursing home, but once they were outside its walls, the impediments—from high curbs to the lack of transportation—were immediate.

Tap, whirr. Russell moves on and points to a picture of Blank. He looks like a movie-extra hippie with long blond hair tucked behind his ears. He is almost always wearing a pair of small, round sunglasses. Blank was intent on making changes at the nursing home, with or without approval, and he started taking Smith and others out to Grateful Dead concerts and on additional excursions. After one such trip, he came back to find out he’d been fired, but Blank promised Smith he’d come back for him.

The termination proved fortuitous. Blank, along with disability activist Glenn Kopp, created a plan for an independent living center where people like Smith could have their own apartments, with access to medical care and other services. The concept was novel, and it would be the first of its kind in the state. Blank and Kopp named the center Atlantis, after the mythical island made famous by the Greek philosopher Plato. The grandiose name seemed fitting for a place that sought no less than to create a community inclusive to those of all abilities.

The first tenants moved into the Atlantis apartments in southwest Denver in 1975. They came from nursing homes, and for some, it was their first home, first set of keys, first time deciding when to go to bed, when to eat, what to eat, and who came in their doors—and who did not. Their lives, which for so long had been dictated to them, were now about choice. Blank kept his promise: Smith moved to the center shortly before his death on October 1, 1975.

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As the Atlantis community grew in size and scope, frustration with Denver’s inaccessibility did too. Now that they were living independently, the residents wanted to move freely. That core group of Atlantis residents became the heart of the Gang of 19. And that group became ADAPT. The two—although separate—became irrevocably bound.

Defining the word “disability” isn’t easy. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses this description: “Any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.” The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey uses six categories—difficulty with “vision, hearing, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living”—to estimate that 12.8 percent of the population has disabilities. Other groups suggest that as many as one in five Americans will have a disability in their lifetimes.

Jacqueline Mitchell. Photograph by Bryce Boyer

What we do know is that disabilities are random. You might be born with a disability or acquire one as you age. Sometimes it will happen slowly, or it can occur unexpectedly after an accident or medical emergency. Some disabilities are obvious, and others are hidden. “It’s one of the only groups that truly is a melting pot of people,” says Naomi Morrow, an independent living specialist at Atlantis. “You have people who are different ages, different religious backgrounds, different sexual orientations, and we’re connected through our unique abilities.”

If you—or a loved one—don’t live with a disability, you might not notice the small and big ways the world discriminates. Once you see the obstacles, though, it’s difficult to look at your surroundings in the same way. You see how a broken elevator at your office building made the upper floors inaccessible for days while a part was on order. How a well-meaning hostess at a restaurant moved a walker away once someone sat down, leaving him or her stranded. How without braille text, your business card isn’t accessible to someone with a visual impairment. How your street corner doesn’t have curb cuts at intersections, which help people in wheelchairs but have advantages for everyone else, too.

As the civil rights movement changed America in the 1960s and 1970s, more people, including Wade Blank, argued that disability rights were basic human rights. ADAPT grew, as did other disability activist groups around the country. In Denver, the fight to get wheelchair lifts on buses expanded to include making buildings accessible and ending discriminatory practices.

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Nationally, activists worked to increase services and set federal building standards for mobility. Those efforts culminated in the late 1980s in what would become a wide-ranging bill to establish civil rights protections for people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was a bipartisan effort fiscal conservatives sold as a cost-saving measure.

In 1989, the bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives. On March 12, 1990, activists—including Blank and members of ADAPT—arrived at the U.S. Capitol. Their plan was simple: To rally support for the bill, they would enter the iconic building by ascending the exterior stairs.

Protestors rolled their wheelchairs to the bottom steps and, with the help of others or by their own power, they lay or sat on the stone and began to crawl. One protestor, Denverite Jennifer Keelan, was only eight years old. The images of people straining to gain entry to the very place where the nation created its laws were unforgettable. The Capitol Crawl, as it became known, showed others what ADAPT already knew: The world wasn’t accessible for everyone. And it worked. The House passed the bill a few months later, and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law on July 26, 1990.

From the start, the ADA lacked critical elements, including mental health protections (that would be addressed with the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C., which expanded the ADA to include mental illness as a disability). Blank and other activists continued to push for more rights and worked as watchdogs to ensure that the ADA was being implemented and supported with federal funds. Their efforts created a national network of people—a web of activists—that can still be traced back to Denver.

In 1993, on a family vacation in Mexico, Blank’s eight-year-old son, Lincoln, was swimming in the ocean when he was caught in the undertow. Blank swam out to try to save his son but was lost in the water, too. Blank was 52, and his and Lincoln’s deaths devastated the ADAPT and Atlantis communities. More than 1,000 people attended the memorial service in Denver, including the mayor and members of the Gang of 19.

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If there were any doubt about Blank’s legacy, Justin Dart, who was the chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, cemented it when he was quoted in the Rocky Mountain News on February 17, 1993: “The Americans with Disabilities Act would not have passed without his leadership.” Blank’s memorial was a tribute to that history. One refrain from the speeches about his life persists, even today: “If heaven isn’t accessible, God is in deep trouble.”

Shortly after Blank’s death, in 1994, Atlantis moved into a new home in the Baker neighborhood. Instead of providing apartments, the one-story building became a community hub not only for its clients, but also as a place for ADAPT members to meet. It was where people came to find housing options throughout the city, learn to cook, and plan protests. There was a wheelchair repair shop out back. You’d always find more tie-dye than ties. And Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated with as much enthusiasm as Christmas.

Hope Russell. Photograph by Bryce Boyer

Nola Nash, who is now the center’s Section 8 housing manager, started working at Atlantis around 1994. She’d had a well-paying job writing construction bonds but was sold on Atlantis’ mission. That happens a lot: Someone visits for a tour and never leaves. Nash traded her corporate job for workdays that started at 5 a.m. She’d meet clients in their homes and help them shower and get ready for the day. Her kids were regular fixtures at the center, and they grew up riding around on the backs of wheelchairs. On days off, she and other staffers often participated in ADAPT actions. “It occurred to me one day,” she says, “that our kids are probably the only kids in the world that aren’t afraid that their parents are going to jail.”

When important bills were moving through the Legislature and Congress, people would gather around speakerphones at Atlantis to listen for updates. “This was the most accessible place,” Nash says. “It was a polling place. It was where every party was held. Every funeral. We had a double funeral. A triple wedding.” People were intent, she says, on keeping Blank’s legacy alive, which created a communal atmosphere. “Everything was ours,” Nash says. “It was our community. So, the yard was ours. The kitchen was ours…everything was ours. Everyone had this huge amount of pride.”

And there was so much to celebrate. The ADA. Medical advancements. Growing community awareness and support for disability rights. “So many people end up in Denver because this is where the movement started,” Jacqueline Mitchell says. It’s a sentiment echoed by many; people come to the state because of ADAPT’s reputation, Atlantis’ legacy, and services for the disability community. “Colorado actually has one of the best long-term services and support systems for people who use Medicaid,” says Candie Burnham, Atlantis’ executive director. “There are more services available. There are more options available. And that’s been the case for quite some time.”

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But Colorado’s reputation doesn’t mean the local ADAPT chapter—there are now more than 30 chapters nationwide—has been idle. There’s still too much at stake.

It seems as though every year there is a policy, a bill, a procedure that ADAPT members protest. This year, it is H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. The bill passed the House on mostly partisan lines (Republicans for, Democrats against) in mid-February and, at press time, had been received by the Senate. This spring, articles—including an impassioned op-ed from U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth in the Washington Post—about how it would gut the ADA garnered national headlines.

Dawn Russell. Photograph by Bryce Boyer

Debates on the merits of the bill persist because although the ADA sought to make public places accessible, enforcement has been haphazard. If a violation occurs, a person could talk to the property or business owner, log a complaint with the Department of Justice, or file a lawsuit. ADA compliance can be more reactionary than proactive.

As a result, lawyers can send a person with a disability into spaces to discover violations. The lawyer might then file a suit on behalf of the individual or send a notice to the business warning of a potential dispute. If the lawsuit proceeds and is successful, the owner pays fines and must fix the problem; the plaintiff typically receives no financial compensation since ADA compliance is the goal. The court can award the lawyer legal fees to be paid by the business. Cases are sometimes settled outside of the courtroom or before a lawsuit is even filed.

Notices and lawsuits proliferated, and small-business owners and restaurateurs lobbied Congress to intervene. Some say that the process was being misused by lawyers. The resulting legislation, H.R. 620, requires that a business owner be approached by the would-be plaintiff before a lawsuit is filed and given a time period to address the ADA violations. To many, it may seem like a reasonable fix, but activists worry that it sets a precedent to weaken the ADA, especially since the lawsuits are only successful if the owner is already breaking federal law.

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For Dawn Russell, the debate about H.R. 620 obscures a bigger issue: Nearly 30 years after the ADA was passed, compliance is still a problem. Further, 40 years after the Gang of 19 lay down in the street, transportation is still a problem, too. RTD has made considerable strides in connecting the city, but getting to a train, bus, or light-rail station can still be inordinately difficult if you have a disability. About 40 percent of Denver streets either have sidewalks that are not wide enough for wheelchairs or don’t have sidewalks at all, and many sidewalks still lack curb cuts.

Russell understands this dilemma all too well. One day, she found herself stuck in a pothole in the middle of Colfax Avenue with traffic streaming by her. Ideally, her chair would scoot easily over well-maintained roads; however, cracks, trash, and high curbs can throw her chair off-balance, break parts, and—quite literally—leave her stranded. She finally made it across Colfax that day. No one stopped to help her.

Today, RTD offers the Access-a-Ride program, through which people with disabilities can request direct shuttles to and from destinations. Reservations must be made the day before, which doesn’t allow for much spontaneity if, say, your dinner with friends goes late or if an unexpected spring snowstorm makes your trek to the bus stop impossible. There is only a handful of handicapped-accessible cabs on the road on any given day, and ride-hailing services, such as Lyft and Uber, aren’t viable options for most wheelchair users.

In addition to transportation, finding accessible homes for members of the disability community has always been a challenge, and Denver’s booming housing market doesn’t make things any easier. Although the ADA established requirements for public spaces, the law doesn’t apply to private residential properties. It’s not uncommon, then, for an apartment building’s lobby and parking garage to be accessible while individual units are not (hallways are too narrow, bathrooms are too small, there is no ramp).

Jordan Sibayan. Photograph by Bryce Boyer

Over time, accessibility accommodations have increased, particularly in new buildings that use the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards to address everything from door widths to mirror placements. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 also requires federally funded housing developments with more than four units to build accessible spaces. Retrofitting older buildings is more difficult; if you drive an automated wheelchair like the one Russell uses, which can weigh more than 125 pounds and stretch more than two feet wide, simply turning around in a century-old hallway can be an exercise in advanced geometry. And if you need affordable or Section 8 housing, options are scarce.

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In Denver, Atlantis is currently in charge of managing approximately 400 Section 8 housing vouchers. But that is not enough. Candie Burnham says clients can wait years to receive Section 8 housing vouchers and that she is considering starting a support group for people looking for housing in the Denver metro area. “There is no easy answer,” Burnham says. “Unless [people] have stable housing, there’s little chance anything else in their life is going to be stabilized.” And if you don’t have a home, where do you go?

Four decades after the creation of Atlantis, after Michael Smith left the nursing home, and after the Gang of 19 stopped traffic, the default option for many people with disabilities who need financial support from programs like Medicaid is still a nursing home. In fact, transitioning people out of such places and into their own houses is still a core service at Atlantis. It is also why ADAPT was protesting ACA changes in Gardner’s office last summer.

In April, more than 1.2 million Coloradans were enrolled in Medicaid. Only a portion of those enrollees will qualify for nursing-home-level care via the state’s Medicaid program. Today, some people can obtain waivers to receive equivalent services in their homes or from programs they choose. That means individuals who meet certain eligibility requirements and have disabilities can live where they want but still have attendant help for a number of services, ranging from medication monitoring to assistance with daily showers. But threats to cut Medicaid funding or repeal the ACA could undo that option and much of what ADAPT has fought for during the past 40 years.

On the state level, Colorado is considering several options to improve access to home- or community-based programs for people enrolled in Medicaid. One such possibility is Community First Choice (CFC), which could ensure matching federal funds for attendant services at home or in community programs. Several states, including California and Montana, already have CFC.

A bigger win for ADAPT and other disability activist groups, though, would be the passage of the Disability Integration Act of 2017, which would give federal protection to funds for home-based services, instead of state-by-state CFC implementation. In short, the Disability Integration Act would be a federal mandate that funds would follow people. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer reintroduced the bill this past April.

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Locally, ADAPT has asked the Colorado congressional delegation to voice support for the bill and nearly everyone has, except for U.S. Representative Ken Buck and Gardner. “We’re damned and determined,” Russell says. “We’re going to pick up Buck, and we’re not through with Gardner.” Buck’s office says he is studying the legislation. Gardner did not respond to our request for comment. “We obviously have a history, and I don’t know why we can’t be best friends with him,” Russell says of Gardner. “We keep trying.”

You might think people like Dawn Russell would be fatigued by the constant battles. She is not. If anything, she’s more engaged than ever before. “We have so much work to do,” she says before launching into how the 40th anniversary of the Gang of 19 protest is forcing her to look back in appreciation while moving forward.

Candie Burnham. Photograph by Bryce Boyer

In the past four decades, the group has changed, but not in foundational ways. They still keep information close. Members only learn of upcoming actions shortly before they board a bus or get on a plane. It’s not uncommon to arrive at a location with no more information than what time to be there. ADAPT rarely has official meetings. “If we have a meeting, a lot of people show up, but they are just coming to see what we are doing,” Russell says. “Instead, we put out an email and give a deadline, and say if you are interested in what we are doing, you have to call us.” Then Russell works her magic—as Jacqueline Mitchell jokes, “no one says no to Dawn”—and assigns tasks based on each person’s skills.

She and other ADAPT members are keen to welcome new people—with a caveat. “Don’t fuck with our message,” Russell says. “You are not going to come and build your issue off of our issues.” She says it’s easy for messages to get tangled up, and there’s too much at stake. There are other rules and goals, of course. During an action, politicians can’t pick and choose to meet with just one or two ADAPT members; they must meet with every protestor. And don’t think about showing up without an action plan. Being mad isn’t enough. “We have never gone out a door that we do not have a solution for,” Russell says. “That’s ADAPT 101.”

Part of the group’s success has been an apolitical approach. They call out members of both parties—which is why, in a moment when the country is bitterly divided politically, ADAPT is optimistic it can move the Disability Integration Act forward. The strategy has helped create what ADAPT calls “infrastructure,” which can include big things (passing the ADA) or smaller things (getting local politicians to voice support) to ensure that even if there is a setback, there is enough forward movement to overwhelm it. “We are always ready,” Russell says.

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This spring, Atlantis, ADAPT’s home base in Denver, was being dismantled—if only temporarily. On April 9, a drill drones as someone removes the plexiglass protecting the memorial articles on the walls. Another person tapes together pieces of cardboard to form a makeshift lid for a box. At one point, over a speaker, Johnny Cash’s baritone sets a steady tempo, singing: “I’ve been everywhere, man…. I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.” As he begins naming American cities, it almost feels like he’s in the room, reading off the locations of different ADAPT actions. But instead of crooning Reno, Chicago, Fargo, he would list Orlando, San Francisco, Detroit—all locales of actions recorded on the memorial walls.

Candie Burnham is in constant motion to answer questions, shuffle boxes, hand out labels, and call in a lunch order for pizza. Burnham has more than 20 years of experience with the disability community and joined Atlantis in 2016. “I’ve always felt very strongly that people should be in charge of their own life circumstances,” she says. “I have a job where I really get to live that philosophy.” On moving day, she’s wearing a black ADAPT shirt, of course.

Trash bins are filling up, but nothing is thrown away without careful consideration. One staffer grabs an extra box of adult diapers to stash in her car in case clients could use them. Mementos—dusty fake maroon roses, a velvet painting of the Pink Panther sitting on a toilet and smoking, a doorstop rock painted with flowers—are moved or disappear into boxes that overtake the main room. Nearby, a 3D model of a building is perched precariously on top of an emptied brochure rack. From its lofty roost, it’s a reminder of what’s changing.

Atlantis’ longtime home, where so many ADAPT actions have been planned, will be torn down, and the whole operation will move into a temporary space before settling into 201 Cherokee Street, a building that is slated for completion in 2019. The new space (the building will be owned by Atlantis Community Foundation, a separate nonprofit) will have a community meeting space; 60 affordable, accessible apartments; and an exhibit area to display Atlantis and ADAPT history. While practical, the move stirs up a lot of emotions. “I feel like it was time to rebuild,” Nola Nash explains. “But just like everything else we do, there was some blood on the floor because some people wanted it, some people didn’t, and some people said, ‘Yeah, it makes sense, but we don’t want it.’”

The move will allow Atlantis’ mission to expand. Its client list is only getting bigger, and that’s due, in part, to the center’s mobile unit, an accessible minibus turned remote office. The year-old initiative is being funded by a grant from the Administration for Community Living, which Burnham applied for because decades after the Gang of 19, people still have trouble getting to the center. The mobile unit visits consumers in a seven-county area and has weekly stops at day shelters. If “We Will Ride!” was ADAPT’s earliest chant, this is the physical representation of that demand.

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The program is based on the independent living philosophy, which dictates everything Atlantis does and requires that individuals set their own goals. That means when Robbie Roppolo, the mobile unit manager and an ADAPT member, interacts with a new client, he focuses on what they want instead of moving down an established checklist of what someone else thinks works. It’s a highly individualized approach, which can be frustrating—and empowering. “We’re not going to do the work for you,” Roppolo says. Instead, he spends a lot of time asking questions, such as, Have you thought about how this goal would enhance your independence? How can we make that happen?

Robbie Roppolo. Photograph by Bryce Boyer

On outreach days, the team might talk to several people. If one or two call the center to follow up, that’s a good day. As the program grows—it has already added about 36 active clients—the needs do, too. “We could do outreach five days a week,” Roppolo says. “But as we’re doing outreach, it’s also building the caseload.” The mobile unit’s growth brings a new population to Atlantis, but the need could quickly outpace resources.

Which is why Atlantis is moving and growing, and why people like Roppolo, Burnham, and others are trying harder than ever to make sure that Atlantis is not forgotten, that the Gang of 19 is honored, and that the ADA is strengthened. Because they know that persisting is a matter of necessity. “Atlantis is the second-oldest independent living center in the United States and the first in Colorado,” Roppolo says. “We still run across people, every day, who have no idea what Atlantis or ADAPT is, what we do, or where we are. That’s something that we are looking at, because there are so many people that need the services.”

Because what if someone needs ADAPT and can’t find it? What if your life changes tomorrow and you don’t know where to go to get help? Would you find Atlantis, like Dawn Russell did? She and her army of activists will keep fighting to make sure you have a map to their lost city. A place where disability is about ability. And a place that perseveres, even when it is relocated. Because Russell already knows: “We are the luckiest people in the world to have landed right here.”

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