March 27, 2006

Field Report: ADAPT Nashville Action

By Larry Biondi

ADAPT launched its "Real Voices-Real People, No More Stolen Lives" demonstrations March 18-23 in Nashville, drawing attention to the inequity of the state's services for people with disabilities. For every $1 the state spends to provide a home in the community, it spends $160 to provide a "bed" in a nursing home.

No wonder the Volunteer State ranks 49th in the country in home and community-based services! "It's an immoral policy," national ADAPT organizer Bob Kafka told the estimated 400 ADAPTers on the group's first day in Nashville. "Let the walls of institutionalizing our brothers and sisters come crumbling down!"

All day, members of the group had the opportunity to tell their personal stories of living in institution to a six-member committee that represented the federal government, including the National Council on Disability.

Lifelong ADAPT member Larry Luis, using his communication device, told the committee how he lived in nursing home, and how he worked with late ADAPT founder Wade Blank to make his nursing home environment more palatable to him and his fellow residents. Luis detailed for the federal officials the work Blank did to make life decent for others until he was fired from the institution. That story was also told in an HBO television movie, "When you Remember Me."

A former nursing home administrator told the emotional story of how she moved from being "in charge of her kingdom" -- an Alton, Illinois facility -- to being a victim in the same place when she was admitted as a "patient." She used her bra as a makeshift lock in the bathroom to established privacy, she told the group -- none of the bathrooms had locks! Roaring applause erupted after she was done.

"Buddy" from Philadelphia scolded the committee after officials told the packed ballroom to be more patient. "People are dying every day in nursing homes," he said. "How much more waiting do we need to do?"

The next day ADAPT marched to Nashville's War Veteran Plaza, where they held a brief rally to support the state's Community Choices Act, a bill introduced in the state legislature in the wake of the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision, which requires states to offer services to disabled people in the "least restrictive environment."

After the rally, protesters took to the streets, blocking intersections near the Capitol for seven hours. Chanting "Just like a nursing home you can't get out," the group braved the cold and mist to request a meeting with Governor Phil Bredesen.

They had four demands for the Governor: They wanted him to:

1. Support and sign the Community Choices Act;

2. Work on policies that will make it more easy for Tennesseans to move back into he community;

3. Urge the National Governors Association to support the the "Money Follows the Person" concept;

4. That work with national ADAPT on these matters.

ADAPT members were unfazed at the fact that last summer activists had held a 77-day sit-in at the Governor's office in Memphis and Bredesen didn't budge. They wanted to expose the fact.

They barricaded four intersections and blocked a Capitol garage in the cold and mist, making rush hour in downtown Nashville a living hell.

And the media was right there to capture ADAPT's activities. Cameras were rolling when drivers confronted protesters at an intersection late in the protest. Nashville police ordered the protesters off the streets and gave them citations. State workers resorted to leaving the Capitol on foot rather than to deal with the traffic havoc. Workers who said they were sympathetic with ADAPT's cause still questioned our tactics. Some referred to ADAPT as "professional protesters."

Through a spokesperson, Bredesen said wouldn't meet with ADAPT -- that he was "not going to be a part of a political spectacle."

But ADAPT persisted, marching the next day to the Capitol to again demand a meeting with Bredesen. Patrol cars greeted demonstrators as they barricaded the main entrance to the building. Bredesen's office didn't respond to ADAPT'S request, so after an hour of waiting the protesters blocked a nearby intersection. Metro police acted differently this day, swiftly arresting 67 protesters at the scene and taking them to jail in local paratransit vehicles. They were processed and later released.

But a hundred times that many -- 6,700 Tennesseans -- are locked up in nursing homes. Because part of the reason for that is the state's inadequate personal assistance services and lack of accessible, affordable housing, ADAPT focused on the housing issue on its last day. First the group visited TennCare, the state Medicaid agency that made the cuts that forced so many people into nursing homes. "Sixty seven hundred people are trapped in nursing homes!" they shouted in the parking lot.

The group then took on the local Housing and Urban Development office, demanding a meeting with local HUD official William Dirl, whom they wanted to fax a letter to HUD Secretary Alphonzo Jackson, asking Jackson to free up more Section 8 vouchers so that people with disabilities could live in more affordable and accessible housing.

ADAPT member Cassie James explained that even with the increased availability of services and support in the community, people with disabilities were being prevented from moving back into the community because they couldn't get accessible housing. "This affects the elderly and the disabled who continue to wait to get out of nursing homes," James said.

After an hour, Dirl came down and greeted the group, agreeing to fax ADAPT's letter to Jackson.

Larry Biondi is a member of Chicago ADAPT.

Posted on March 27, 2006