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The Rolling Resistance: Meet Three Disability Rights Activists Fighting to Save Healthcare

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Disability activists across the nation are staging historic protests in Washington, D.C., and other cities to fight the Republican effort to strip healthcare from tens of millions of people. On Tuesday, as the Senate voted to open debate, 31 protesters in the gallery were arrested, while 64 more, many in wheelchairs, were arrested in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. The protests are continuing as Senate Republicans move forward with their attempts to repeal Obamacare. We speak with disability rights attorney Stephanie Woodward who has been arrested 16 times in recent weeks, community organizer Ola Ojewumi, and hip-hop artist Kalyn Heffernan, who recently occupied the Denver office of Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Wheelchair Sports Camp, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to look at the rolling resistance to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. At the forefront of protests against the various repeal bills before the U.S. Senate are people in wheelchairs. Organized by the national nonprofit disability rights group ADAPT, Americans Disabled [for] Attendant Programs Today, scores of disabled activists have been arrested on Capitol Hill and at senators’ offices back in their home states, demanding no cuts to Medicaid.

On Tuesday, as the Senate voted to open debate, 31 protesters in the Senate gallery were arrested. Sixty-four more, many in wheelchairs, were arrested in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. And the protests are continuing as Senate Republicans continue their attempts to repeal Obamacare.

For more, we’re joined by three guests who have been taking part in the protests.

Stephanie Woodward is with us, an organizer with ADAPT, disability rights attorney. She was arrested Tuesday for protesting at the Hart Senate Building. Video of her being ripped from her wheelchair and arrested for protesting outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office went viral last month.

Ola Ojewumi is a community organizer, a disabled cancer survivor. She’s the founder of Project ASCEND, which provides opportunities to low-income and disabled students.

And Kalyn Heffernan is joining us from Denver, Colorado, the frontwoman for the hip-hop group Wheelchair Sports Camp. She was arrested last month with ADAPT members in Denver after participating in a sit-in at Senator Cory Gardner’s office.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Ola Ojewumi. You have not been protesting. You’ve been lobbying. What are your concerns right now about what the Senate is considering? Very hard for everyone to understand, but they’ve already defeated two bills—one a repeal and replace, as they put it, and one an outright repeal.

OLA OJEWUMI: I’m most fearful of the skinny repeal that they are pushing in the Senate. I have met with a variety of congressmen—Congressman Steny Hoyer, Senator Cory Booker and Senator Van Hollen—and I’ve done work in lobbying and sharing my story. The skinny repeal of the Affordable Care Act would eliminate the employer mandate and would eliminate the individual mandate, as well, and eliminate a medical tax—eliminate a tax on medical devices, as a means of gutting the ACA. This means 16 million people will lose their health insurance. And severe cuts to Medicaid may still be on the table in the Senate. That’s what I’m most fearful of, is that 14 percent of Medicaid recipients are people with disabilities, and we will literally die as a result of this legislation. And common humanity and caring for your fellow man does not mean eliminating access to universal healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephanie Woodward, you have been arrested now several times, is that right, protesting this bill? Can you talk about the organizing that’s going on, with so many people using wheelchairs being arrested around the country, and particularly what—your last arrest was at the Hart Office Building?

STEPHANIE WOODWARD: Absolutely. So, our last arrest—well, my last arrest—I wouldn’t say “ours,” because people with disabilities are fighting across the nation—was on Tuesday, when they were voting for a motion to proceed. And I was arrested with about 64 of my lovely ADAPT warrior siblings as we were all chanting that we would rather go to jail than die without Medicaid, because we know that people with disabilities will, quite literally, die with these Medicaid cuts.

So, we started actually protesting back with the House bill. So, myself, I’ve been arrested five times just fighting for Medicaid in the past few months. So, we started with McConnell’s office on the Senate bill. And since then, we’ve had over 40 protests across the nation of people with disabilities, who were already members of ADAPT or are starting their own ADAPT chapters now, to fight for their lives and their liberty.

AMY GOODMAN: And this skinny repeal that they’re talking about today, this so-called skinny repeal, your concerns about it?

STEPHANIE WOODWARD: Our concerns are the same concerns we’ve always had. At the heart of all of the repeal proposals has been gashing Medicaid. And Medicaid is what pays for the freedom of people with disabilities, why it hurts me to hear Republicans talk about liberty and freedom all of the time, when they want to steal the liberty and freedom of disabled people by cutting the one payer that pays for us to live in the community, that pays for us to live the American dream that every other American lives. It doesn’t sound like that’s what they really care about. If you care about liberty and freedom, you should care about it for all Americans, including Americans with disabilities.

AMY GOODMAN: And when they say the skinny repeal doesn’t touch Medicaid, Stephanie Woodward, your thoughts?

STEPHANIE WOODWARD: The end result is they’re trying to get to Medicaid. If this wouldn’t result in cuts to Medicaid, Heller would not have put a “sense of the Senate” out yesterday about not cutting Medicaid. Bob Casey would not have put together a motion yesterday about not cutting Medicaid. Clearly, there are cuts coming to Medicaid, or else we wouldn’t be talking about it still. And so, we’re not going to stop fighting until we are assured and we can actually see a bill that shows us that there will be no cuts to Medicaid.

AMY GOODMAN: Kalyn Heffernan, you’re joining us from Denver. You’re one of the founders of Wheelchair Sports Camp, the musical group. You participated in a protest in Senator Cory Gardner’s office. Can you describe what happened there? Is it true that the staffers turned up—literally, turned up the heat to try to get you out?

KALYN HEFFERNAN: Thanks you for having me. We were denied access to the bathroom on the same floor for the first day that we were there. We were there for three days and two nights, about 60 hours almost. And it seemed like the first day they turned off the air, but we did have a lot of community support that was bringing us resources, able-bodied people bringing us means to go to the restroom and also fans to keep the ventilation going.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you demanding of Senator Cory Gardner?

KALYN HEFFERNAN: We showed up after seeing the first bill that was proposed. And we showed up demanding that our senator vote no on anything that was going to cut Medicaid services, most especially for long—

AMY GOODMAN: Has he met with you?

KALYN HEFFERNAN: He did have a phone call with us a few days after we were released from jail, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, ADAPT, your organization, was actually founded in Denver. Can you talk about the history of the group?

KALYN HEFFERNAN: Yeah. Denver is a super great place for a lot of movements, also the heart of the Chicano Movement. And ADAPT started when they broke some disabled people out of nursing homes in 1975 and demanded the state to pay for their services, their long-term services. And that’s really what created Medicaid in the long run. ADAPT Atlantis was also the first people to lay their bodies in front of public transportation here, on Colfax and Broadway, and that’s why all buses now must provide access for disabled people, and some of the first people to break the corners of the sidewalks in order to get curb cuts for us wheelchair users. So, Denver and this group that I sat in with is definitely a very historical, exciting group that I’m super honored to be a part of.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re also the founder of the hip-hop Wheelchair Sports Camp. We just played the music at the break. Can you talk about using music to push forward your politics?

KALYN HEFFERNAN: Yeah. I am just in a super awesome position to be able to tour internationally and use my voice to advocate for more disabled people. I think a lot of my lyrics have always kind of talked about my own personal advocacy and what life is like for me as a disabled person. And after playing more shows and touring more, it’s become a lot more aware that the disabled community has been a big supporter of our music. And we were just happy to be able to do this. And I’m really excited to be able to lend my voice to the Denver community as often as I can.

AMY GOODMAN: Kalyn—

KALYN HEFFERNAN: So, I was—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —you’re one of the Denver Nine, one of the nine people who were arrested in Senator Cory Gardner’s office. Can you talk about your experience with the police? I believe one of the group, one of your group, saying to the police, when they were asking her how to work her wheelchair, “I don’t have an obligation to tell you how to work my chair.” And, you know, to cooperate—”I will cooperate, but I will not teach you how to arrest me.”

KALYN HEFFERNAN: That’s right. Three of us were charged, on top of trespassing, with interference, for not telling cops how to use our wheelchairs. Carrie Ann Lucas was escorted away by a disabled RTD bus, which is, ironically, there because of the same group of ADAPT activists. So, yes, three people were also charged with interference because they were not telling cops how to use their chair.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ola Ojewumi, we have spoken to you before in a previous interview. You’re a double—

OLA OJEWUMI: I apologize. The sound just went out.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a double organ transplant survivor. You also use a wheelchair. The response of senators to your lobbying, as you talk about this being a matter of life and death?

OLA OJEWUMI: The response from senators, especially on the Democratic side, has been wonderful. They have really become champions for people with disabilities like me. I have survived a heart and kidney transplant. Last year I became a cancer survivor. And I’m just coming off the heels of two hospitalizations this month alone. They’ve been—they’ve given me a platform, and other disabled advocates a platform, to share our stories.

And the reality is, this goes beyond just the aspect of Medicaid. Not all people with disabilities are on Medicaid. Many of us do have employer-based healthcare, like I do. And the threats to our livelihoods and the ability to have things like independent living, home-based and community services, is just not affected by the Medicare aspect, but also gutting other parts of the ACA, including the individual mandate and the employer mandate. I take 22 pills a day, and my life is in the balance. And I deserve the right to live, the right to work and the right to have access to Medicare—I’m sorry, medical healthcare, and not be turned away because I have a pre-existing condition.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to seeing your fellow and sister wheelchair users at the front of these protests?

OLA OJEWUMI: I am so inspired by all of them. And I’m inspired by ADAPT, because they’re the reason that I can get on city buses here in Washington, D.C. They literally put their lives on the line so that not just them, but the disability population at large, can benefit. We are the largest minority: 19 percent of the American population is disabled. It’s 49 million of us. So those few activists that you see willing to get arrested, willing to lie in front of buses, the history of ADAPT and the history of these powerful young women, young men, people of all generations, people with disabilities, really changing the world and not just fighting for our rights—if you see all these people with disabilities on the Hill, our work does not just affect us. It affects nondisabled people, as well, because health insurance isn’t just for the chronically ill. It’s not just for people with disabilities. It’s for all of us. So we’re laying down—they’re laying down their lives on the line not just for disabled people, but for the able-bodied, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you are also a big Planned Parenthood activist. The possibility of Planned Parenthood being cut? And, Ola, we only have 10 seconds.

OLA OJEWUMI: Planned Parenthood is directly correlated with Medicaid. And women of color who receive services from Planned Parenthood will be affected. We need to keep the ACA alive, and the Medicaid expansion, so women, and women of color particularly, can still get access to Planned Parenthood services, cancer screenings and mammograms.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. On Ola’s Facebook page, it says, “No one should have to fight this hard for what should be treated as a human right.” Ola Ojewumi, Kalyn Heffernan, Stephanie Woodward, thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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