The Gang of 19 Protest that “Shocked the World” Honored in Convergence Station’s Sun Valley Bus

An Interview with Accessibility Pioneer Barry Rosenberg

At first glance, the Sun Valley Bus at Meow Wolf Denver’s Convergence Station looks like your everyday 1970s RTD bus smashed through a wall, Kool Aid Man-style, after it drove into a singularity that merged four worlds together. But believe it or not, that bus is so much more. Beyond the lore of The Convergence, which was potentially triggered by this bus crash; beyond the Sun Valley lettering that pays homage to the rich cultural neighborhood in which our Denver location resides; beyond Convergence Station’s clear themes of transit, there gleams a substantial matter so important to the exhibition: Accessibility.

black and white photo of people lined up on a road in wheelchairs and one person holding an American flag with the stars in the shape of the International Symbol of Accessibility
Photo from Atlantis Community, Inc., Archive Collection

Meow Wolf welcomes all humans regardless of race, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or disability. The entire immersive experience is modeled to be nonlinear and unique to each individual, but accessible to all. And the Sun Valley Bus is the artistic expression of all the behind-the-scenes work Meow Wolf does to build interactive worlds that everyone can explore.

Most people are familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act movement. Not everyone knows that the way we now think about accessibility, and the federal civil rights law that has been enacted, stems largely from one pivotal 1978 demonstration on one street corner in Denver--Broadway and Colfax--orchestrated by 19 protesters in wheelchairs.

“The Gang of 19 started shocking the world,” said John Holland in a 2018 Westword article. Holland is a lawyer who worked on legislation in the early ADA movement. “It was the beginning of a protest that was nationwide in scope.”

people standing around among people in wheelchairs with a graffiti-ed wall in the background
Photo from Atlantis Community, Inc., Archive Collection

A community organizer named Barry Rosenberg was there on the front lines with the Gang of 19, standing on the corner and helping the group with water or whatever they might need. Such a support role was comfortable to him as one of the founders of Atlantis, an advocacy organization that was then a community home for people with severe disabilities. It was named by Presbyterian Minister and community organizer Wade Blank “after the lost city, comparing the plight of persons with disabilities as being lost in the system,” says Rosenberg. This wasn’t their first protest. Previous demonstrations had ended in citizens knocking over protesters in their wheelchairs and other forms of violence. On this day, despite the threat of violence or arrest, protesters from Atlantis stoically surrounded one city bus at the busiest intersection in Denver and immobilized it. They didn’t move for 24 hours.

side profile of a person wearing a taupe hat and a long white beard with a white shirt, looking down. Two people wearing yellow shirts in the background
Photo from Atlantis Community, Inc., Archive Collection

“I remember them shouting, ‘We will ride! We will ride!’”, Rosenberg recalled during his visit to Convergence Station with Senior Creative Director Chadney Everett and Executive Creative Producer Todd Richins. When they showed him the Sun Valley Bus, it brought forth an abundance of memories that he shared with Everett and Richins. In a paper Rosenberg later shared with Meow Wolf, he remembered the powerful moment in greater detail:

“Shortly after both buses were immobilized, a police car came to the scene...the demonstrators were told to get on the sidewalks or face arrest. This time no one moved. No one, no way. More and more cops came, each new corps adorned with more gold on their caps. Despite greater, more sophisticated threats, no one moved. Community leaders came by and tried to reason with the demonstrators, but again, no one moved.”

black and white photo of three people laying in front of a bus on mats. A sign on the bus says "Taxation without transportation"
Photo from Atlantis Community, Inc., Archive Collection

Coined the Gang of 19, this group of protesters created a media frenzy that forever changed how the public views accessibility, transportation, housing, and care for people with disabilities. It was a change in perspective to consider how everyone experiences the world differently, and how many people with disabilities or neurological differences are marginalized by the cookie cutter way our world is designed. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress in 1990, but the fight continues. Atlantis Community, Inc. remains an active organization that is continuing the work of Wade Blank by transitioning consumers from nursing homes into the community and providing independent living skills to our consumers. Their mission is to advocate for all people with disabilities to be a meaningful part of an integrated community of their choice.

According to the CDC, 26% of Americans have some type of disability, and yet, 1 in 3 adults with disabilities does not have access to usual healthcare, and 1 in 3 has an unmet healthcare need because of previous healthcare costs. An examination of the opportunities available to disabled people reveals a labyrinth of inequality that excludes them from conventional milestones the able-bodied take for granted. Getting married, for example, can result in losing Social Security benefits that disabled people rely upon.

A trip to Convergence Station won’t solve these fundamental inequalities, but making accessibility one of our top priorities embraces the ethos that all organizations and public spaces should do everything in their power to make spaces accessible to all. It creates an anti-cookie-cutter space where everyone can feel like it’s made for them.

Quality of life was also something Rosenberg addressed when he ran the Youth Wing of Heritage House, which housed and cared for people with disabilities.“Most of the residents, particularly those from institutions, had never been to a movie theater, a restaurant, went camping, attended concerts, etc.,” recalled Rosenberg. “We organized all kinds of activities integrating the residents into the community, served wine at meals, got dogs and cats from the Dumb Friends League.”

Meow Wolf works with Artful Access to continually challenge ourselves in making Convergence Station interactive to all, regardless of vision impairment, hearing impairment, mobility impairment, sight and vision sensitivity, and more. Our exhibitions go far and beyond conventional ADA standards and are 100% ADA compliant; Convergence Station is over 90% wheelchair accessible. There are three elevators, and we’ve done testing to make sure our winding paths and portals are wide enough to be navigated by those in wheelchairs.

Wheelchair Space Kitchen inside Convergence Station. Photo by Kate Russell

Standing in Kalyn Heffernan’s Wheelchair Space Kitchen installation in Convergence Station, Barry Rosenberg bends over to examine the newspaper clippings on the wall that detail the tumultuous story of the ADA movement’s launch in Denver, spotlighting organizations he was instrumental in creating. Heffernan is a prominent Denver activist, hip hop artist, and member of ADAPT, the organization created by residents at Atlantis. Heffernan herself is part of ADAPT, and was part of a 2017 sit-in at Senator Cory Gardner’s office that protested the proposed healthcare bill that would have cut Medicaid by $722 billion. Her installation, Wheelchair Space Kitchen, plays with themes of accessibility: the newspaper clippings and many of the Easter eggs in the room are easier to access by those with disabilities, including exclusive codes written in Braille and heavenly art viewable from wheelchair height. Lockers hover far above the heads of all who enter as a demonstration of the frustration of inaccessibility.

As Rosenberg’s eyes graze the timeline of history depicted in those newspaper clippings, he recalls a story that took place in the flurry of the fight, at the founding of Atlantis, but before they had any funding. One of the first live-in residents of Atlantis, Micheal Smith, was dying.

“There were concerns that Atlantis would be liable, should he die,” said Rosernberg. “Mike was well aware of his imminent death and preferred to die living independently rather than be in a nursing home,” the story continues in Rosenberg’s writings. “I remember on one occasion when we had some kind of party in the community that Mike wanted to go to. He was so weak (with Muscular Dystrophy) that he could no longer sit in his power chair. So we transported him in his bed on the back of a pickup to attend the party. All things seemed so possible then. Within a few years, Atlantis received grants and became a certified home health agency, able to bill Medicaid for services.”

a newspaper clipping with the headline "Atlantis Battles Delay, Foulups" and an image in black and white of a person with a beard laying on a bed with open eyes staring off
Photo from Atlantis Community, Inc., Archive Collection

It’s not possible to save everyone from the end. But it is possible to go above and beyond, even risking liability, to give them the dignity, respect, and autonomy to travel in the way they’ve chosen after a great party, no less.

“This bus is not accessible to everyone,” reads a sign inside of the Sun Valley Bus, one of the few places in Convergence Station that is not wheelchair accessible. “Learn more about the Gang of 19, who fought for better accessibility.” Seeing one of the instrumental supporters of the accessibility movement, Barry Rosenberg, standing in front of the Sun Valley Bus with three generations of his family, is a testament to the fight he’s begun...and all the work that is to come with future generations.

Barry Rosenberg inside Convergence Station. Photo by Kate Russell

Photo from Atlantis Community, Inc., Archive Collection

ADA Movement Timeline

  • Late 1960s: Exposes revealed poor treatment of persons with developmental disabilities living in institutional settings. In these institutions, they suffered from neglect, lack of care, physical, verbal, and sexual abuses that eventually led to lawsuits and legislation to move them out of institutions and into the community.
  • Early 1970s: The “Deinstitutionalization” period where people with disabilities were meant to be moved out of institutionalized settings and into the community, but were instead mostly moved to nursing homes, regardless of age, which were modeled after giving acute, short term care to older people, not long-term care for those with severe disabilities or youthful patients.
  • 1973: Presbyterian minister Wade Blank started working at Heritage House in Denver, a home for those with disabilities, and hired Barry Rosenberg. Together, Wade and Barry coordinated the non-medical services in the Youth Wing. The two became proactive supporters of disability protesters after seeing how they were treated.
  • 1974: The director of Heritage House made threats to some of the residents resulting in two of them moving out and one of them dying. A lawsuit was later brought against the director by the victims, who won. In direct response to their poor treatment at Heritage House, Blank conceptualized Atlantis, a community-based home for persons with severe disabilities seeking to live independently or semi-independently. They formed it in 1975 and it operated on a shoestring budget.
  • In 1976, Atlantis received its first HUD funding and they fleshed out “the first program in the U.S. to get younger persons with disabilities out of nursing homes and into the community,” according to Rosenberg.
  • July 5, 1978: nineteen protesters from Atlantis surrounded an RTD bus at one of the busiest intersections in Denver, Colfax and Broadway. “There was a fair amount of confusion and uncertainty,” says Rosenberg. This standoff lasted for two days. They became known as the Gang of 19. They appealed their lawsuit with RTD and all 213 Denver buses were given wheelchair lifts.
  • 1983: The Gang of 19 formed ADAPT (formerly American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today): a United States grassroots disability rights organization. “While Atlantis was an independent living center that provided an array of direct and indirect services, particularly advocacy, to the consumers, ADAPT — which initiated its first demonstrations in 1983 — was a militant organization totally dedicated to systemic change in Colorado and throughout the nation,” said Rosenberg.
  • 1990: Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The fight for accessibility in public spaces, housing, transportation, and care for people with disabilities continues.