Early in his career as an iconoclastic minister and civil rights worker, Wade 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.
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.
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.”
That exodus laid the foundations for the Atlantis Community and its political-action offshoot, ADAPT. “We began to 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.”
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.”
Videos from the “It’s Our Story” project discuss the transcendent vision behind the actions of Wade Blank and the Denver, CO activists behind the formation of ADAPT and the transfer of institutionalized people with disabilities to life in real homes. Watch the video at: “How Wade Blank Became a Disability Activist” or this one: “Getting Arrested for Accessible Transit”