by Nils Skudra, Communications Specialist, DI-NC
Among the disability rights activists who took part in the Capitol Crawl on March 12, 1990, the youngest protester to climb the Capitol steps was eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, a girl with cerebral palsy whose photograph became an enduring and iconic symbol of the disability rights movement’s effort to lobby Congress for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act through direct action. While many activists at the time were concerned that the image of a child with a physical disability taking part in the protest would send a message of pity, Keelan-Chaffins undertook this historic climb as an act of empowerment, both for herself and for other children with disabilities. The demonstration thus played a significant role in swaying Congress to pass the ADA, which brought about substantial transformation for disability rights across the United States.
Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins was born in Michigan in 1981. Born a month prematurely and weighing only three pounds and ten ounces, at the age of two she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which left lesions within the motor cortex of her brain. Her mother Cynthia and grandfather Chuck were told by doctors that Jennifer would never be able to move, talk, or learn, and they recommended that she be placed in a home or be put up for adoption. However, Jennifer’s family opted to raise her at home, and their experience gave them the motivation to become actively involved in the disability rights movement. Cynthia recalled, “When she was born, she had her fist clenched in the air. We just let her do the rest… She was a very strong advocate.”
During her formative years, Jennifer experienced significant discrimination due to her disability: She was “forced to take separate classes (irregardless of her aptitude and ability), impeded by the sheer lack of accessible buildings and transit and shunned by her peers.” However, these experiences only galvanized Jennifer’s fighting spirit, leading her to participate in her first disability rights protest in Phoenix, Arizona, at the age of six in support of the disability rights group ADAPT and its demands for greater accessibility. This protest made a profound impression on Jennifer, who reflected that “it was pretty cool [to see] a bunch of people in wheelchairs fighting for their rights.” Shortly afterward, Jennifer had her first experience with blatant discrimination when she and other ADAPT members were denied service at a restaurant, where the staff told them, “People don’t want to watch you all eat.”
Following her participation in the Phoenix protest, Jennifer and her mother became active organizers in the disability rights movement and continued to join protests around the U.S. and Canada. At the age of seven, she and her mother were arrested during a protest in Montreal, Canada, together with other activists during a peaceful disability rights demonstration, a moment which shocked North America. In March 1990, they took part in the Washington, D.C. protest focused on demanding passage of the ADA. When disability rights activists began their historic “Capitol Crawl,” some organizers didn’t think it was a good idea for Jennifer to participate, fearing that the image of a disabled child crawling up the Capitol steps, Jennifer reflected, “would send a message of pity instead of empowerment.” However, Jennifer was determined to take part in the crawl, telling them that “if somebody my age didn’t do it, then nobody from my generation would be represented.” Jennifer recalled that while the day was very hot and the crowd had grown very large, 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.”
The Capitol Crawl had a dramatic impact on the Congressional debate over passage of the ADA since it forced members of Congress to see firsthand the physical barriers that members of the disability community confronted, and consequently the protest helped to push the stalled bill out of committee, leading to its signing into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. Jennifer’s participation in the Capitol Crawl undoubtedly had a powerful influence since the iconic footage taken of her on the Capitol steps transformed her into an icon for the disability rights movement. The ADA’s implementation had a sweeping and far-reaching impact on disability rights, placing requirements for accessibility in public facilities in the form of automatic doors, bathroom stalls with grab bars, and Braille on elevator buttons; closed captioning services for television and telecommunications; opportunities for institutionalized individuals with disabilities to live independently; and the integration of school classrooms, which had a transformative effect on how children viewed their peers with disabilities. Furthermore, the ADA became a global model for disability rights laws around the world; “since 2000, 181 countries have passed disability civil rights laws inspired by the ADA.”
In the years following the Capitol Crawl protest, Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins has remained an active disability advocate. Together with her mother, she fought valiantly “for her right to an education, her dignity and privacy, and her fundamental civil rights.” Jennifer’s advocacy for her education ultimately proved successful, as she graduated in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in Family and Human Development. She has since founded Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins LLC to continue her activism and has worked with BraunAbility, a manufacturer of accessible vehicles, to design a modified van that she can drive independently. In addition, Jennifer engages on two major fronts today in the battle for quality: education around disability and accessibility, and political activism to effect change. In the educational field, she teaches children across the U.S. “about what it means to live with a disability, the importance of accessibility, and becoming advocates for themselves and for their family and friends with a disability.” Furthermore, she works with businesses and corporate organizations to better understand the ADA and its role in ensuring the right of people with disabilities to education, employment, and access.
Today, Jennifer lives with her mother and her service dog Mya in Denver, Colorado. She has authored the book All The Way to the Top, an illustrated children’s book chronicling the story of her participation in the Capitol Crawl, to “show young readers that they can make a difference on the issues they [care] about, no matter their age.” She hopes that her example will inspire children and their parents and teachers to learn more about the disability rights movement, which most people know relatively little about today but has had a highly influential impact on American society. Jennifer maintains, “For me, the disabilities rights movement is just [as] important as the civil rights movement, and these are things that need to be taught in our schools.”
- Keelan, Cynthia. Cited in “An 8-Year-Old Crawled Up the U.S. Capitol Steps to Help Pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.” https://www.amightygirl.com/. A Mighty Girl. Published March 12, 2023. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=30987.
- Keelan-Chaffins, Jennifer. Cited in “An 8-Year-Old Crawled Up the U.S. Capitol Steps.”
- “Meet Jennifer | Capitol Crawl Icon & Disability Rights Activist – Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins.” https://jkclegacy.com/. Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins LLC. Accessed May 10, 2023. https://jkclegacy.com/about.