I’ll always think of the summer of 2017 as the summer of ADAPT.
ADAPT is a national disability rights organization in the United States that played a crucial role in stopping the GOP healthcare bill that would have decimated Medicaid. While ADAPT is known currently and historically for their direct actions, the usage of social media was another tool that spread their message far and wide. I got a chance to interview three members of ADAPT who were involved in their communications and social media activism: Marilee Adamski-Smith, Laura Halvorson, and Dominick Evans. The responses below have been condensed for space.
Tell me a little about yourself and your involvement in ADAPT
Dominick: Earlier this year I was invited to help out with the media team and since then, I have been a regular part of National ADAPT and regional ADAPT actions! I basically help call the media and let them know about ADAPT actions as they are happening, and I also follow the people on the ground, and make sure what they are posting on social media is both posted on the national ADAPT Facebook and Twitter, but also signal boost things through my own personal accounts…I’m also constantly in contact with Marliee, and the other members of the media team, filling in where I need to, if they need to take a break or eat. We really have each other’s backs, so that we are not completely ignoring our own needs, during the action. Sometimes it is impossible not to.
I also recently brought together Ohioans, and people from nearby states, to form Ohio ADAPT. When I am running media for Ohio ADAPT, I often am listed as one of the media contacts. Sometimes I have to handle press specifically, by answering questions and making sure the action is being represented properly, and the press has the right information about what is going on or why we are protesting. I also help coordinate and plan ideas for actions, and recruit Ohio ADAPT members to go on those actions, since I cannot.
Laura: I’m one of the new kids on the block and got involved in ADAPT fairly recently. Since there was not a chapter in DC when I moved here in 2015 I helped out when other chapters came to town with things involving the Disability Integration Act. Then in 2016 myself and Kings Floyd were asked to help restart the chapter in DC. I now am one of the contact persons for DC Metro ADAPT and am in the media word group. In my time in the media work group I have helped make strides at making our content accessible to all ADAPTers and allies.
Marilee: My first ADAPT Action that I went to was when I was in college, 1996, Atlanta, GA. I took a break for some years and coincidentally when I started again it was during the ADAPT’s My Medicaid Matters Rally.
ADAPT is well known for their direct actions. Can you describe the work behind-the-scenes in terms of communication and social media when preparing for a protest?
Marilee: A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes on before an ADAPT Action. Typically for an action we have a few ADAPT Media Members write up the press release. Other ADAPT Media Members collect the emails and phone numbers of the press contacts for the city in which the action is taking place. We also figure out a person or group of persons who would be physically at the Action where they would be posting to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. They would post photos and videos along with live streaming throughout the entire Action.
Once we are at the location of an Action we send out the press release through a mail system so that all the media outlets gets the press release at the same time, and we can track which media outlets opens the email up to read the press release. Also several ADAPT Media Members call the press contacts so that the Media is aware of the Action that is taking place. ADAPT Media members from around the United States that are not at the action, follow the people or group of people that are physically at the Action that are posting to social media. The ADAPT Media members that are not at the action, boost the posts of the people that are at the Action who are posting to National ADAPT social media and other networks on social media. When the Press arrives at the Action, members of the ADAPT Media team and others talk to the Press and answer any questions they may have in regards to the Action.
After the Action we get many press inquiries that want to interview ADAPT. The ADAPT Media Team arranges these interviews by connecting members of ADAPT to the Press. The ADAPT Media Team members also do interviews as well.
The day of the protest in front of Sen. McConnell’s office on June 22, 2017 was amazing with what happened on the ground with the protest and subsequent arrests. It was also amazing seeing it unfold on Facebook, Twitter, and media outlets in general. What was that day like for ADAPT’s communication team? What worked what didn’t work?
Laura: We planned the action on the anniversary of SCOTUS Olmstead ruling and by serendipity it also happened to fall on the day McConnell released the Senate version of the healthcare bill so there was a lot of press in the area of our target which amplified our press coverage by more than we could have ever expected.
We had fairly good communication since we had people on-site and at home. However when you’re on site it can sometimes be difficult to take a moment to look at one’s phone and give an update in the heat of the moment. So that is an area of needed improvement. We have tried using various platforms and apps to streamline things but sadly there’s a lot of apps out there that are not accessible to all members of our media team and we strive to be as accessible as possible.
Marilee: We work hard to capture everything that happens at each Action. When people start getting arrested they are not able to post anymore so then we try to find other people that haven’t gotten arrested yet. Sometimes we find press that may be live streaming or posting to social media. We try to keep a constant flow of what is happening throughout the action. Sometimes there is a period of time when we don’t know what’s going on due to having everyone being arrested. When that happens we just wait patiently for someone from ADAPT to communicate to us with updates. Once everyone is out from jail there is usually a few people that start to live stream to give an update of what happened during the time that they were in jail.
Dominick: I remember it being very busy. I’m not a morning person, but I have to get up at 9 AM or 10 AM Eastern time on those days. We have to be ready when those on the ground are ready so we can start making press phone calls. I had done other national actions as media, calling the press, but this one was different. Before, it had been much harder to get the press to take our actions seriously, but every person I called was very enthusiastic to get out there and have their reporters connecting with what we were doing.
There was chaos over who was taking what pictures, so giving people credit for that was a little difficult, until later in the day, but I was grabbing photos from Slack and posting them all over my FB and Twitter, and all over National ADAPT’s FB and Twitter. Once the press started reporting I started getting people contacting me on my personal social media accounts. These were media makers from Al Jazeera, Vox, and various other major news networks and publications who wanted me to connect them with people on the ground. That happened for the next few days. It was fun, but overwhelming, at the sheer amount of people responding to what we were sharing.
What do you think is the power of social media in advancing disability rights and unfiltered narratives from disabled people?
Marilee: Social media has given a voice to everyone. While the mainstream media plays a major role, social media augments the message.
Dominick: I am so grateful I live in a time where I can be stuck at home, and still participate. Without social media I never would be able to be a part of ADAPT. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this team, and to protest the injustices against our community in any way I can! As bad as social media can be for bullying and micro aggressions, as well as downright discrimination, it also has opened up the world for many of us with disabilities and helped provide us with a sense of community. It is how many of us disseminate and receive news, so social media has really changed the way news is delivered. It’s imperative to getting any message out.
Laura: It’s very powerful people you can get a primary resource of the coverage instead of a media spin or angled for rating boosts which typically are inspiration porn type narratives. Thankfully a lot of media sources showed our content and many did frame the coverage in a good narrative for the most part.
Are there any instances where you felt journalists or publications depicted ADAPT’s protests inaccurately?
Marilee: I feel that the Ohio Action was depicted inaccurately by the Press. ADAPT was portrayed that they were blocking access to an medical emergency. That never was the case. The emergency personnel had access and they actually did not find any medical emergency. It was all a ruse to remove us. I wish more focus would be given to the stories of people of Ohio and how the proposed legislation would affect their lives and millions of people with disabilities. I wish that the Press would focus more on the message of ending institutional bias.
Laura: While I am blown away and thankful for the amount of media coverage there was some inaccuracies. For myself personal I was portrayed as a child when I’m a 33 year old woman. I wish the media had focused on the issue of how Medicaid caps/cuts will affect Medicaid waiver services like Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) more and not the fact disabled people were arrested or ripped from their chairs, although that is a problematic issue within itself.
Dominick: Everything about the recent Columbus protest, except for the article in Esquire has been wholly inaccurate. Their coverage has made many in my state think that the protest was by paid protesters who are faking their disabilities. They keep saying it was run by out-of-state protesters, when I myself invited them to protest with people from Ohio ADAPT. We are still a new chapter, so nobody got arrested in that action from Ohio, and a lot of that is because people were afraid of what the police were doing, which was abhorrent and violent.
In Columbus, the press has been exploiting disabled people, spinning their words. I wish they would have focused on why we were fighting, and also how horrible it is that Sen. Portman felt the need to illegally keep disabled people from his office by shutting down the building elevators, which is a violation of the ADA. They also have tried to justify the lying and violence of the Columbus police, which is just terrifying. It reminds me that the police are not safe to any marginalized people, and that the press does not always support us or report the truth.
Why do you love ADAPT? What are your hopes for the group in the future?
Laura: I love ADAPT for so fiercely fighting for our rights over the past 30+ years. My hopes is that we can continue to group and strive to be more intersectional and inclusive with our activism and media presence.
Marilee: Advocacy happens at many levels. I do meet with and talk to legislators and other policy people. But sometimes diplomatic efforts are not necessary and direct action is needed. ADAPT is the only disability advocacy organization that uses non-violent direct action and civil disobedience as tools for advocacy. ADAPT provides its members the opportunity to lend their voices for disability advocacy which I love.
I hope ADAPT inspires others to join us in our efforts or even do their advocacy whether it be direct action or other forms.
Dominick: I love ADAPT because there AIN’T NO POWER LIKE THE POWER OF ADAPT! Seriously, ADAPT has been protesting for my rights and freedoms, as a disabled person, since before I was born!
I was born in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. My disability is called Tetra-Amelia. It means four missing limbs. While in college I got involved in disability advocacy. The organization that introduced me to disability rights was the advocacy group, ADAPT. I wanted to advocate for people with disabilities. I truly believe that we as human beings have the same rights. No one should be treated differently just because they have a disability. Later, I founded the local ADAPT chapter called Central Wisconsin ADAPT. I will continue to fight for disability rights because we all have the same liberty that all Americans have… “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
After graduating I moved to Madison, WI where I met my loving husband Joseph. From the day I met Joseph I knew that he was my soul mate. We have been married for 9 years but it feels like yesterday that we met. In 2010, I was able to fulfill one of mine dreams by starting my own graphic design business, Adamski-Smith Multimedia Solutions.
Dominick Evans is a trans quip (queer crip) from the Midwest who works as a Media Advocate for the Center of Disability Rights. He is also a writer, film director, and activist whose work has delved into media representation of disabled, LGBTQIA, and other marginalized groups in film, television, comics, video games, anime, and other forms of media.
Laura Halvorson is a disability rights advocate and organizer with DC Metro ADAPT