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We Will Ride!

On July 5, 1978, a group of wheelchair users surrounded the number 15 at Colfax and Broadway, climbed out of their wheelchairs, and lay down in the street. More wheelchair users surrounded the next bus to approach, and for two days, the Gang of 19, as they came to be called, chanted “We will ride!” as they blocked the intersection.

The reason for this dramatic act of civil disobedience? In 1978, people with disabilities faced a staggering deficit of transportation options. Personal vehicles couldn’t always accommodate motorized wheelchairs, and some paratransit services required riders to book 24 to 48 hours in advance, which didn’t allow for much spontaneity in riders’ lives.

“Some chairs don’t fold up [to fit in a van],” explained Hava Rosen, who was among the Gang of 19. “Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re going to be doing 24-48 hours from now. So, your choices are limited.”

In addition, paratransit services were prohibitively expensive — as much as $35 for a one way trip. That would be $137.47 today. “I don’t care who you are. Who can afford that?” added Andy Rosen, Hava’s husband of 33 years, whom she met at the Gang of 19 demonstrations.

The demonstrations, organized by a group of disability rights activists from the Atlantis community, may have blocked traffic for a few days, but before the demonstrations, people with disabilities were, in many ways, blocked from fully participating in public life. The lack of affordable, accessible transportation options made it harder for people with disabilities to attend school, get to work, see their doctors, vote in elections, go to the grocery store, or even go out to dinner with friends.

“We decided to do the demonstrations based on civil rights issues that the black community based their struggles on, that our not being included in society is not right,” Andy explained.

Demonstrators’ laying down in front of buses was perhaps the most high-profile moment in a long campaign to convince RTD’s board to equip buses with wheelchair lifts. In 1982, after seven years of protests and demonstrations, RTD ordered 89 accessible new buses and agreed to retrofit all existing buses with wheelchair lifts.

Atlantis and the Gang of 19 protests gave rise to the formation of the disability rights group ADAPT. The group continue to fight for the rights of people with disabilities all over the country. The Rosens still join in sometimes.

“I’ve probably been in every jail in in every major city in the United States,” Andy joked.

But to the Rosens, who now live in Nebraska, Denver is the model city for accessibility. The two came to visit in November of 2018 for ADAPT’s annual national meeting and were impressed with the ease of using RTD’s services, including the University of Colorado A Line between Denver International Airport and downtown Denver.

“We’d never taken the train,” Hava said. “It was easy. We got on the train, and we got there. It was wonderful, and I’m so happy and so proud that RTD had the foresight to do what they did, because it means a whole heck of a lot to a lot of people.”

“I was on the bus [while in Denver],” Andy added, “And a younger kid in a wheelchair got on the bus, and he was just beaming. I said, ‘what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘this is the first time I get to go shopping without my mom.’ It broke me up. It made all of it worth it.”

Thanks to the Gang of 19 demonstrations, RTD is now a leader in accessible public transit and frequently consults with riders with disabilities in order to improve servicesIn addition to being the first public transit agency to install wheelchair lifts on buses, RTD was also one of the first to install “high block” ramps at all light rail stations. RTD’s buses and trains also feature wheelchair securement areas, and in 2016, RTD opened three new commuter rail lines offering level boarding from train platforms, which allows passengers equal access through all doors, and earlier this year unveiled new light rail vehicles with increased wheelchair capacity. For those who are unable to use fixed bus and rail routes, there is Access-a-Ride, RTD’s paratransit service, which supplements fixed-route bus service and allows qualifying riders to schedule custom trips within RTD’s service area. These accommodations provide the disabled community with independence, autonomy, and dignity.

“When we flew into Denver,” Hava recalled, “Someone asked me, are you going to kiss the ground? I said, well, if I could get up off the ground [after], maybe, but I might kiss an RTD bus.”

Thanks to RTD ADA Manager Ed Neuberg and ADAPT National Organizer Dawn Russell for their assistance with this story.

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The Gang of 19 lay down in the street, surrounding the route 15 bus. Photo courtesy of ADAPT.