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An 8-Year-Old Crawled Up the U.S. Capitol Steps to Help Pass the Americans with Disabilities Act

At 8 years old, Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins joined the "Capitol Crawl" with other disability rights activists demanding passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On March 12, 1990, over 1,000 disability rights activists marched from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to demand the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which had been stalled in Congress. To illustrate the barriers that many people with disabilities faced every day, over 60 activists cast aside their wheelchairs and crutches and began crawling up the 83 stone steps that lead to the Capitol building — among them was Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, an 8-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who declared "I’ll take all night if I have to" as she pulled herself up the steps. In honor of the 30th anniversary of this historic act — which was the first major national legislation in the world to treat disability rights as a civil rights issue — we're sharing the story of this determined young activist who fought for the rights of people with disabilities across the country.

Jennifer was born in 1981 in Michigan, a month premature and weighing just three pounds and ten ounces. By the age of 2, her mother, Cynthia, and her grandfather, Chuck, were told by doctors at the Shriner Hospital in Arizona that she had cerebral palsy and would never be able to move, talk, or learn. "[We] were told to put her in a home or put her up for adoption," recalls Cynthia. The family opted to keep her at home and soon became active in the growing disability rights movement. "When she was born, she had her fist clenched in the air. We just let her do the rest,” says Cynthia. “She was a very strong advocate.”

After moving to Phoenix, Arizona, Jennifer participated in her first protest at age six, supporting the efforts of the disability rights group ADAPT which was fighting for greater accessibility. The experience made a big impression on her; as she reflected later, "it was pretty cool [to see] a bunch of people in wheelchairs fighting for their rights.” Shortly after, Jennifer had her first experience with blatant discrimination when she went with other ADAPT members out to eat at a restaurant but the group was denied service. The staff told them that, "People don’t want to watch you all eat."

Jennifer continued to join protests, including one in Montreal, Canada where she was arrested at age 7 along with other activists at a peaceful disability rights demonstration. The following year at the Washington, D.C. protest focused on passing the ADA, some organizers didn't think it was a good idea for her to participate in the 'Capitol Crawl,' fearing that the image of a child crawling up the steps, Jennifer explains, "would send a message of pity instead of empowerment."

Jennifer was determined, however, telling them that "if somebody my age didn't do it, then nobody from my generation would be represented." She recalls that it was a very hot day and the crowd at the base of the stairs had grown very large, but the "further up the steps I went, the more I felt empowered. I felt like I had all of the other kids behind me [who couldn’t be there]. I felt that it was important, not just to represent myself, but to represent them and their voices."

Pressure by the participants in the "Capitol Crawl" and other activists helped to push the stalled bill out of committee and, four months later on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law. To many disability rights activists, its passage was the culmination of a fight for civil rights which had been waged for over twenty years around the country. The historic law not only transformed life for many people with disabilities in America, it also became a global model according to the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund; since 2000, 181 countries have passed disability civil rights laws inspired by the ADA. While the disability rights movement has been one of the most successful and impactful social change movements of the last century, however, it's also one that most people know relatively little about and its history is little taught in schools

The ADA was the first major piece of national legislation in the world to treat disability rights as a civil rights issue, and its impact for people with disabilities was far-reaching. Requirements for accessibility made it standard for architects and designers to incorporate accessible features like automatic doors, bathroom stalls with grab bars, and Braille on elevator buttons. Telecommunications companies were required to provide services for those who were deaf or hard of hearing, and television began including closed captioning. People with disabilities who had previously been forced to live at nursing homes from a young age had the opportunity to live independently. Schools started integrating classrooms, which had an effect on how kids saw their peers with disabilities: instead of oddities, they were classmates and friends. "The great thing about the ADA is that it covers almost everything," says Edward Steinfeld, the Director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University at Buffalo. "It's created a society in which people know they have to provide accessibility, and treat people with disabilities with dignity and respect."

Today, at 39, Jennifer remains a vocal advocate for disability rights. She and her mother live in Denver, Colorado where she's partnered with Mobility of Denver, an independent wheelchair accessible vehicle dealer, as a brand ambassador. In 2017, she graduated from Arizona State University with a Bachelors of Science in Family and Human Development. Last year, she was the model for a sculpture by artist Gina Klawitter entitled "All the Way to Freedom" reimagining Keelan's climb. Recently, she's collaborated on a picture book telling her story, All The Way To The Top, to show young readers that they can make a difference on the issues they can about, no matter their age. She also hopes that the new book will encourage kids and their parents and teachers to learn more about this little-known but hugely influential social movement. "For me, the disabilities rights movement is just important as the civil rights movement," asserts Jennifer, "and these are things that need to be taught in our schools."

Books About Disability Rights And Acceptance

I Will Dance
New!

I Will Dance
New!

Written by: Nancy Bo Flood
Illustrated by: Julianna Swaney
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Eva dreams of dancing — but she has cerebral palsy, and she has never seen a dancer in a wheelchair. Then one day, she learns about the real-life Young Dance company, which promises lessons for "all abilities." Although Eva is hesitant when she first arrives, she's delighted to see dancers of all sorts, including those using canes, walkers, and prosthetic limbs — and with time, she realizes that she really can be a dancer! This exuberant picture book, which includes a note from Young Dance’s executive director explaining the company, celebrates a love of dance and the power of inclusion.

Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You

Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You

Written by: Sonia Sotomayor
Illustrated by: Rafael López
Recommended Age: 4 - 9

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and award-winning artist Rafael López celebrate kids of different abilities and the power of inclusion in this affirming picture book! Sotomayor encourages kids to ask if they are curious about another child's differences, introducing physical conditions like her own experience with diabetes and Lopez's use of an inhaler for asthma, then broadening the conversation to include neuroatypical conditions like Tourette's and autism; learning disabilities like dyslexia; and even a nut allergy. Throughout, the children in her story work together to create a garden as a powerful visual reminder that we all have the power to make the world more beautiful.

All The Way To The Top: How One Girl's Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything

All The Way To The Top: How One Girl's Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything

Written by: Annette Bay Pimentel
Illustrated by: Nabi Ali
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Jennifer Keelan was just an ordinary girl who happened to use a wheelchair. But she knew her life would be a lot easier if people would think about what people with disabilities needed — like cuts in a curb, lifts and elevators, and most importantly, acceptance from others. She joined adult activists in the disability rights movement, and on March 12, 1990, as Congress contemplated the Americans with Disabilities Act — a law that would make public spaces accessible — she got out of her wheelchair at the bottom of the steps to the Capitol Building and climbed — all the way to the top. This inspiring picture book reminds young readers that anyone, no matter their age, can make an impact.

El Deafo

El Deafo

Written by: Cece Bell
Illustrated by: Cece Bell, David Lasky
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

After a serious illness at the age of four, CeCe discovers that she’s no longer able to hear. Hearing aids and lip reading provide unexpected challenges, and as she goes out into the wider world she realizes how little people understand about living with hearing loss. All she wants is a friend, but that seems impossible when she struggles to do something as simple as watch a TV show with hearing kids. To succeed in school, she gets a bulky device called a Phonic Ear that allows her to hear her teachers — even when they forget she's listening. Perhaps El Deafo can be a superhero to her peers after all... This delightful graphic novel, a 2015 Newbery Honor book, provides an uplifting and humorous glimpse into life of a hard of hearing child, and even provides tips for how hearing people should interact with those who lip read or use hearing aids.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Written by: Dusti Bowling
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

Aven has long since gotten tired of questions about what "happened" to her arms, so she creates crazy stories instead of repeating over and over that she was born without them. When her family moves to Arizona to run a theme park called Stagecoach Pass, she steels herself for even more questions. Then she meets Connor, who also feels isolated by disability (in his case, Tourette's Syndrome.) When the newfound friends discover a mystery at Stagecoach Pass, the real adventure can begin! This quirky story starring a delightfully funny main character is a reminder that others' reactions are often more problematic than the disability itself — and that nothing, not even "lack of armage," has to hold you back. Aven's story continues in the sequel, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus.

Roll With It

Roll With It

Written by: Jamie Sumner
Recommended Age: 10 - 13

12-year-old Ellie was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, but she's never considered that something that should define her life. She hates when people assume "the kid in the wheelchair" will be all inspirational sayings, or when her overprotective mother or hovering aide get in her way. Instead, she has plans to become a professional baker. But when Ellie and her mother move to help take care of her grandpa, who's suffering from dementia, Ellie finds herself facing existence as the new kid in school, with a wheelchair, who lives in a trailer park. Fortunately, a neighbor named Coralee and a classmate named Bert provide friendships and acceptance that help her prove she can make it in this new town. Author Jamie Sumner drew from her experiences with her son, who has cerebral palsy, to create this realistic portrayal that shows the challenges of life with a disability while also celebrating friendship, acceptance, and delicious baked goods.

Out of My Mind

Out of My Mind

Written by: Sharon M. Draper
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Melody's classmates and teachers dismiss her as mentally challenged, because her cerebral palsy means she's unable to walk or speak. But the truth is that Melody's mind is remarkable: deeply intelligent and with a photographic memory, she's capable of much more than anyone expects. And while she's been repeating the same preschool-level ABCs year after year, she's also been planning exactly what she'll say whenever she figures out how to communicate. Then her parents get a computer — one which has a special keyboard that will allow Melody to talk. Melody has found her voice; are people ready to hear what she has to say? Complex and thought-provoking, this novel will open middle readers' eyes to the misconceptions about people with disabilities.

Push Girl

Push Girl

Recommended Age: 13 and up

Kara is a popular student and aspiring dancer with a mostly perfect life; the few snags, like her parents' arguments, seem minor. But after one particularly terrible day, she drives off from a party... only to be struck by a drunk driver. Now paralyzed below the waist, Kara has to adjust to a new life, and her popular friends and boyfriend are nowhere to be found. Fortunately, with the help of some old friends — and the decision to be a "push girl," who faces every challenge with determination — Kara finds a way to build a new life and give hope to others around her. Author Chelsie Hill survived the same sort of injury as Kara and created the real life Walk and Roll Foundation, which is dedicated to helping people with spinal injuries, giving this book an authenticity and heart that's deeply touching.

Say What You Will

Say What You Will

Written by: Cammie McGovern
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Amy was born with cerebral palsy, and she's spend her whole life using a walker, a speaker box — and an adult aide. When Matthew, one of her high school classmates, challenges her bubbly exterior, Amy decides that relying on adults has kept her separated from her peers. In response, Amy asks her parents to pay her fellow students to help her, and urges Matthew to apply. As they form a friendship, Amy discovers that Matthew's quirks are actually compulsions, and that, in many ways, his undiagnosed and untreated OCD limits him far more than her CP limits her. Together, they face the challenges of high school, their friendship turns into a romantic relationship, and Amy realizes that letting people her own age into her life has taught her to see her possibilities, not her limitations.

The Girl from Aleppo: Nujeen's Escape from War to Freedom

The Girl from Aleppo: Nujeen's Escape from War to Freedom

Recommended Age: Adults

Nujeen Mustafa was born with cerebral palsy; she was denied schooling in her home country of Syria and taught herself English by watching American soap operas. In 2014, when her home became the site of a brutal fight between ISIS forces and US-backed Kurdish troops, her family was forced to flee. It was the beginning of a physically and emotionally arduous journey through Turkey, across the Mediterranean, then on to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, until she finally found a new home in Germany. Despite her physical limitations, Nujeen doggedly continued her quest that took her over both land and sea, telling reporters, "You should fight to get what you want in this world." Suffused with optimism and determination, this inspiring story highlights the additional challenges facing refugees with disabilities, as well as the power of refusing to give up on your own potential.

Written by: Lennard J. Davis
Recommended Age: Adults

Today, we take it for granted that you can find an accessible bathroom, that doors to public buildings will be automatic, or that a TV show will offer closed captioning. But those features that make the world more accessible to so many people were the result of a revolutionary piece of legislation: the Americans with Disabilities Act. Published in honor of the 25th anniversary of the passage of the ADA, this in-depth history explores the activists who drove the movement for disability rights, the dramatic protests that brought awareness of their cause — including the "Capitol Crawl" — and how the ADA changed lives both in America and around the world.

Price: $22.00

Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

Recommended Age: Adults

Judy Heumann fought polio at 18 months of age — but her bigger battle would be against a world that didn't want to allow her in. As a child, her family had to argue for her right to go to grade school, where one objection was that she might be a "fire hazard." She had to take the New York City school system to court because they wouldn't give her a teacher's license because she was paralyzed. These experiences convinced her that Americans with disabilities deserved better: they deserved legislation that would explicitly protect them. In this stirring memoir, Heumann describes her leadership for the Section 504 Sit-In, the longest takeover of a government building in American history, and of her lobbying for the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. Both infuriating and empowering, this is a triumphant portrait of an activist who refused to be told where she couldn't go.

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