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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Wade Blank 1940-1993, Disability Rights Movement Advocate Remembered

The following history of ADAPT's founder Wade Blank, a non-disabled former nursing home recreational director who assisted several residents to move out and start their own community. The Atlantis Community. The below article from the Ragged Edge- July/August 1993 will offer a look into the history and achievement's of Wade Blank and fellow advocates. Also below is a remembrance by Justin Dart after the unexpected passing of his friend, and fellow advocate.
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Article published by the Ragged Edge- July/August 1993.

Wade Blank

The death of the Reverend Wade Blank on February 15, 1993, left a profound emptiness in the hearts of many people who loved and respected him. But any void in the disability rights movement is only momentary, for Blank left behind scores of human values, a keen analysis – and scores of skilled, committed leaders ready to carry the movement forward.

American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT) and its mother, the Atlantis Community in Denver, both embody the spiritual, organizational and strategic lessons Blank carried over from the 1960s black civil rights movement. He had been a Presbyterian minister, a War on Poverty field organizer and a disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., before becoming an orderly, then an assistant administrator, in a Denver nursing home.

Liberated Community
Early in his career as a iconoclastic minister and civil rights worker, Blank developed the concept of a "liberated community" – a society where human beings could live in equality and develop the power to effect change. When, at the Heritage House nursing home, he found himself in the midst of a "community" of people with severe disabilities, whose only community structure was one of oppression – the confines of the institution – he took on the challenge of making the "liberated community" a reality.

It all started when Blank came to Denver seeking a change. "The nursing home industry in Denver recruited its nursing home administrators from the ranks of ex-ministers," he recalled recently… A nursing home executive called Blank. "They said, ‘You’re young. You’re hip. Could you start a youth wing for us?’ So, I started a youth wing."

Hired by Heritage House in December 1971, Blank went to visit the residents the evening before he began his new job. "I remember for dinner that night we had baked potatoes, applesauce and scrambled eggs, and that was near Christmas. The place was like a morgue. The food was cold." Blank chatted with severely disabled individuals, some of whom would later become ADAPT organizers. "Little did I know," Blank recalled, "that I was to enter the most important moment of my life.

"I had 60 young people I recruited. Every morning at 7:30, they’d get dressed and get on a school bus, and go to a workshop and count fish hooks. Called it (a) work activities program."

At council meetings of the young people, the residents made simple requests, and an idealistic Blank tried to implement them. "I let them evaluate the nurses," he said. "They wanted co-ed living. They wanted to have pets. They wanted to have rock ‘n’ roll bands. So three years into this experiment, the nursing home is just like a college dorm on a crazy weekend all the time.

"I was trying to change it from inside, and I didn’t understand the monster I worked for," he recalled.

Outside of the Home
In 1975, Blank proposed "that we move a few of them out into apartments, and we let the aides and orderlies punch in at the nursing home, then go to the apartment and give them service." That idea got Blank fired. "The nursing home saw where I was going, and they couldn't let me go in that direction."

Once Blank was fired, the nursing home erased all his reforms. "They came in and they took all the stereos and TVs out of everybody’s rooms, had the dog pound come by and get all the animals and in one day it went from everything I’d built for four years – to that."

But Blank wasn’t about to give up. Thinking to himself that he’d "recruited all these people to this hell," he decided simply to move them out "and do the care myself…

Atlantis Community
"Within the first six months, I’d moved 18 severely disabled people out. So now I was wed to the concept. You know, I couldn’t walk away from it."

That exodus laid the foundations for the Atlantis Community and its political-action offshoot, ADAPT. "We began t learn about power and what empowerment is, and how to use it," Blank said. While Atlantis was liberating people from nursing homes, ADAPT (which then stood for American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit) took on discrimination in Denver’s, and then the nation’s, bus systems. Using non-violent, direct-action tactics similar to King’s movement, ADAPTers made bold demands and achieved extraordinary results.

Blank had found himself at the center of another civil rights campaign, similar to the one he had seen African Americans wage. "All the issues are the same," Blank asserted. "The black movement wanted to ride the buses equally. The black movement wanted to eat at the Woolworth’s counters. The black movement wanted the right to vote. The black movement wanted the right to keep their families together. The black movement wanted the right to be integrated into the school system. That’s what the disability rights movement wants, exactly…

"My members are into confrontation. We’ll tell somebody what we want, and we’ll talk about it once or twice, but that’s it. Then we deal with you. Either we’ll shut you down or whatever."

Confrontation worked, Blank believed, because it took society’s fears – those fears we’re always trying to dispel in disability awareness workshops – and turned them to a new use…

"So I said," (Blank explained, recalling earlier successes in the black civil rights movement), "…‘Let’s take 25 wheelchairs and go out and surround a bus and hold it and see what happens." Bam! Just like magic. It worked. Total power. Police couldn’t move the wheelchairs because they were afraid. The mayor said, ‘Don’t arrest disabled people.’ We win…"

Focus on Fundamental Human Rights
Blank’s focus on fundamental human rights and on the most impoverished members of the disability community distanced him from more affluent groups. In this, too, he emulated Martin Luther King. "King involved the poorest in the community," Bank said, "and a movement cannot really change things unless they address the poorest, the least. When King was shot, he was beginning to attack the ghettos." For Blank, "Our ghettos are the nursing homes, and we need to address the ghetto."

Blank attacked not only the mainstream disability movement’s economic hierarchy but also its disability hierarchy. "You go around to independent living centers and you’ll see a lot of post-polios and a lot of spinal cord injuries," he said. "But you won’t see people that slobber and can’t speak clearly…" These are the people often excluded or left behind by more "respectable" advocacy organizations, he pointed out…

Blank found leadership qualities in people who had never before thought of being leaders: former nursing home residents, people with speech impairments, people labeled retarded and others typically disenfranchised both by society at large and by traditional disability organizations. Blank had little patience for people who put their own egos or their own careers above the movement.

But more people were and are being empowered every year to free Americans with disabilities from institutions. All are encouraged to help plan protests, identify issues and targets, hold press conferences, and become a part of the "liberated community."

# article originally published in the Ragged Edge- July/August 1993
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photo: Wade Blank with his son Lincoln and fellow Atlantis cofounder Michael Auberger celebrate the laying of the plaque, dedicated to the original protesters - The Gang of 19 - who blocked the intersection to protest the inaccessible buses in 1978.

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The Reverend Wade Blank, 1940-1993 is a tribute to Wade Blank written by Justin Dart in 1993.

Press Release in 1993:                                                                                                                            
The President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities 
Justin Dart, Chairman

The Reverend Wade Blank, 1940-1993

Disability rights leader Wade Blank died on February 15 in rough seas off of a beach at Todos Santos, Mexico. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to save his drowning eight year old son, Lincoln.

It is always a tragedy when great lives are cut short by apparently preventable events. But to dwell on the tragedy of Wades Blank’s death would be a very large disservice to the future. Wade’s life is the message. His existence was a towering triumph that demands to be shouted, to be heard, to be acted on.

Unlike others who participated in the sixties revolution for a rational society, Wade did not give up the struggle when it became unfashionable. In 1974 he founded [the first Center for Independent Living in Colorado,] the Atlantis Community in Denver – a radical program to enable people with severe disabilities to leave the isolation of nursing homes and live in the mainstream. Atlantis was a success. But it soon became apparent that the mainstream itself was polluted by devastating discrimination which prevented people with disabilities from fulfilling their humanity.

In the tradition of Martin Luther King, Wade made equal access to bus transport the symbol of full equality: “Rosa Parks protested the indignity of being forced to sit in the back of the bus. We can’t get on the bus at all.” On July 5th and 6th, 1978, he and nineteen people with disabilities illegally detained an inaccessible bus at the intersection of Broadway and Colfax in Denver. ADAPT was born – American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit. During the next twelve years hundreds of ADAPT activists blocked buses, streets, hotels and government buildings across North America. They filled the police records of the jails of Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Little Rock, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Reno, Montreal and Washington, DC. Wade, Mike Auberger, Bob Kafka, Mark Johnson, George Roberts, Larry Ruiz, Rick James, Stephanie Thomas and Anita Cameron were arrested 15-30 times each. Molly Blank, Babs Auberger, Frank McComb, Lori Eastwood, Bobby Simpson, Melvin Conrady, Beverly Furnice, Joe Carle, Karen Tarnley, Ann Sawtel, Sue Davis, Diane Coleman and many others were co-heros in the long struggle.

In March of 1990, with the fate of the ADA hanging in the balance, Wade organized the historic march of disability rights leaders from the White House to the US Capitol to demand a law that would provide full equality, “with no weakening amendments.”

People with severe disabilities crawled up the Capitol steps and were arrested demonstrating in the rotunda. ADA passed in July – with no weakening amendments. Without the courage and inspiration of Wade Blank and his colleagues, the world would not have its first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities.

After the passage of ADA, knowing that the job of justice was far from completed, Wade and the members of ADAPT refocused their advocacy. They demanded that the federal government provide funds for personal assistance services that would enable persons with disabilities now trapped in nursing homes to live free in their communities. The demonstrations – and the arrests – continue. Progress is being made. President Clinton has promised to form a task force that will create a national program of personal assistance services.

Some – mostly those that didn’t know him – have said that Wade’s methods were “extreme.” They said that civil disobedience in the eighties and nineties is “passe,” “obsolete,” “inappropriate.” The same kinds of things were said about Washington, Jefferson, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. What is extreme, what is inappropriate is millions of human beings living with less dignity than we accord to our pet dogs and cats. What is inappropriate is American citizens imprisoned without due process of law in oppressive institutions and rat infested back rooms. What is inappropriate is people with disabilities living and begging in the streets. What is inappropriate, what is unspeakably immoral, is a society that cannot be bothered to make the simple changes necessary to give its own children the opportunity of full humanity.

It has been my privilege to work closely with Wade Blank during the last several years. He demonstrated against a meeting I chaired – when HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan spoke at the 1991 PCEPD annual conference in Dallas. We counseled together by telephone at all hours of the day and night. We served together on the ADA Congressional Task Force and in negotiating ADA with the President of Greyhound. We marched together for equality in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington. We were together in the freezing midnight outside the barricaded Department of Transportation in Washington. I never put myself in a position to be arrested. Wade said that was alright, because I could play a positive role within the system. I was never sure in my heart that I was on the right side of the bars. I knew he was.

Wade Blank was a sensitive philosopher of Democracy. He was a superb organizer. He was a mature, sophisticated politician. He had total honesty and total follow through. You could take his promises to the bank. These are rare and good qualities, but they alone would not have enabled him to use an unfashionable method to lead an unfashionable cause to an historic victory.

Wade had a magic sword. It was love. Unlike many with religious labels, he understood and lived the central commandment of his God, “that ye love one another as I have loved you.” He understood that love is not just smiling at nice people, but passionate, lifelong action to preserve and enlarge the joy, the dignity, the quality of every human life. He understood that love does not smother with criticism, care and control; it encourages, emancipates and empowers. He understood that love for all means justice for all.

Wade’s leadership of love made ADAPT the family for those who had no family, the family with justice, with hope, with transcending fulfillment. Wade’s love warmed and empowered us all. It breached the defenses and won the respect of Congresspersons, businesspersons, policepersons, jailers, judges and mayors. Again and again, it lifted my heart and my mind from selfcentered desperation of Washington politics to the dream.

Before he died, Wade planned a series of demonstrations for personal assistance services to be held in Washington, DC, on May 9th, 10th and 11th. These will go forward in his honor. There will be a tribute to him on Sunday, May 9th, at the Lincoln Memorial. Let us join together in memory of Wade – on May 9th, today, tomorrow, as long as life remains – to continue his struggle for a truly human society.

Let us pick up his sword of love and truth and courage, and use it – each in our own way – to cut the chains of all who are slaves to pity, prejudice and paternalism. Let us join in one voice to shout his shout – “free our people.” Let us embrace his golden heritage of responsible action for life, enlarge it in our own lives, and invest it in the lives of all who will come.

Wade, we love you. That’s easy. We will try our best to love each other as you loved us.

– Justin Dart
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"How Wade Blank Became a Disability Activist"
John Holland of Denver, Colorado speaks about working at the forefront of disability civil rights law as he protested and advocated alongside Wade Blank.
The is part of the "It's Our Story" project, there are many additional videos telling of the history and the people of the Disability Rights Movement.
YouTube published by It's Our Story

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