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ADAPT Leader Bob Kafka
Not Giving Up the Fight

By Mike Ervin

Bob Kafka, ADAPT Leader

When Bob Kafka attended his first ADAPT action in 1984, he was determined not to get arrested. At the time, he was a member of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.

“Rules promulgated by the Reaan administration said that VISTAs were not to engage in protests," he said. But on the second day, “All I remember was all of us blocking doors (of the D.C. Convention Center), tapping on the glass windows with spoons yelling ‘access is a civil right’ and ‘we will ride.’”

The American Public Transit Association, a trade organization of public transit entities, was meeting inside. ADAPT demanded a national mandate that all new public transit vehicles and facilities be wheelchair accessible. APTA’s opposition was the primary obstacle.

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“We were moved off the doors, and the cops set up wooden sawhorses in front of the convention center,” Kafka recalled. “(ADAPT leader) Mike (Auberger) saw an opening between two sawhorses and started to move through. Feeling the moment, I followed. My chair was grabbed by two cops, and I never got to the door. Mike’s chair was tilted backward with his ponytail flying wildly. We were arrested with a few others. It felt good. It cleared out all the cobwebs that grow in your head when you do too much systems advocacy. It got me in touch with the anger that I now realize any good activist-organizer needs to get and stay involved to bring about change.”

Bob Kafka talks on a cellphone to the troops during an ADAPT action in Washington, D.C.

Kafka found his place in the disability rights movement that week. He could have been a policy wonk. He could have been a CIL director. (He was board president of the Houston CIL in its early days.) He could have been a suit-clad, inside-the-Beltway, lobbyist type -- if he owned a suit.

“I owned a suit in 1967 when I returned from Vietnam. Haven’t owned one since, though I do have a corduroy sports jacket with patches on the elbows, which I brought in a thrift store. I’m a closet bureaucrat and policy wonk. But I also have an independent, anti-authoritarian nature.”

So, shortly after that amazing week, Kafka and his wife, Stephanie Thomas, founded ADAPT of Texas. They both became among the most important and certainly the most enduring national leaders in the history of the organization.

“Steph and I are co-dependent. As much time as we spend together, we are like a couple married 75 years.”

Though he left New York 40 years ago, Kafka still speaks with a heavy Bronx accent. At 64, he has passed on much of his national ADAPT leadership responsibilities to younger people he helped mentor. But his influence remains strong.

Independence Today recently asked him a few questions.

Q: What was the atmosphere of your childhood?

A: I was born in the Bronx in a working-class neighborhood, mostly eastern European Jews and Italians. We lived on the sixth floor of a six-story building. It was a two-bedroom apartment. I shared a bedroom with my younger brother. My older sister slept in the living room on a convertible bed. If you looked out the window, you could see the candy store my father owned—the J&M Luncheonette. It sold candy, school supplies, newspapers, magazines. If you stretched out your neck from our window or went out on the fire escape, you could see the George Washington Bridge. My father’s parents, from Poland, lived a block away. I went to P.S. 76 and Christopher Columbus High School, which were (within) walking distance of our apartment. My parents had a large group of friends with nicknames out of a Damon Runyon book: Pussy, Goldie, Mush, Spike, Whitey, Blackie, Cueball, Lump.

Mom, in my late teens, began working as a clerk at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and belonged to Local 1199. My dad, after he sold his share of the luncheonette, worked with his brother in a liquor warehouse and was a union member.Bob Kafka Neither of my parents was very active politically. My mom’s parents, however, were very involved in their unions. My grandmother was active in organizations that promoted peace, civil rights and union organizing.

Q: What were your interactions with disabled folks?

A: There was Harvey, who lived down the block with his parents, a guy with cerebral palsy about 35 who walked his dog every day. I talked to Harvey very rarely. In the apartment below us were the Mitertags. Mr. Mitertag was blind and had a newspaper stand somewhere in Manhattan. Mrs. Mitertag was low vision. I remember feeling uncomfortable riding in the elevator with them, not knowing what to say. I don’t know if this was because of their disability or that they were adults, which intimidated me as I was a shy kid. The strangest thing about my disability interaction was that the New York School for the Blind campus was directly behind my high school and I never saw a blind person. The campus had a fence around it with ivy growing on it so you could not see what was going on inside.

Q: Your first life-changing event was being drafted. What were your aspirations before then?

A: After high school graduation in 1963, I wasn’t sure what to do. My father wanted me to be an accountant. I had a college deferment. Well on December 31st, 1965, I was going to a New Year’s party in Queens. I couldn’t get home the next day because the subway was shut down because the workers went on strike. My dad picked me up. I could tell something was wrong. He pulled out of his pocket my draft notice. I tried to find out why I was drafted since my deferment was still good. When I went to the draft board, the woman looked me in the eye and said, “My son is in Vietnam. You can go too.” I knew I was in trouble. So on February 15th, 1966, I entered the Army. I spent one year and 17 days in Vietnam. Ironically, I extended 11 days in Vietnam so when I left I would get out of the Army rather than be assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. I said at the time, "No way this guy is going to Texas."

Q: But yet you ended up at the University of Houston.

A: I received a B.B.A. (bachelor of business administration) in economics. I graduated and didn’t know what to do. My friend Tom called me and said if I wanted a job as a laborer in this ghost town Jerome, Arizona, fly out tomorrow. I worked driving to Sedona every day to build homes. I moved from Jerome to west Sedona and lived in a cabin with four dogs and a cat.

Q: Then came your next big life-changing event -- your accident. Didn’t that also happen on February 15th?

A: February 15th, 1973. In Sedona our favorite bar was the Oak Creek Saloon. I was drinking there the night I crashed Tom’s International Harvester pickup truck and hit the lone tree on the road. I was pushed through the back window, and the next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital with quite a hangover and a broken neck. Pulling some political strings in the Bronx, our federal representative got me transferred to the Bronx VA for rehabilitation. I left the VA a walking quad. I used a wheelchair for distances but walked quite a bit. An older O.T. (occupational therapist) made a big impression on me. She asked, “Why do you want to walk?” Seemed like a dumb question. She said if it was going to take me 20 minutes to go from the therapy room to the elevator, and I was going to be exhausted, and if it would take me 20 seconds in a wheelchair and be ready to do things, which would I pick? Well the fact that mobility was a means to an end and not an end in of itself has stuck with me as I have evolved from crutches to manual wheelchair to hell on wheels! At the Bronx VA I became a PVA (paralyzed veterans association) member. My first involvement with a disability organization was when I attended a Texas PVA meeting. I was executive director of TPVA for a short while and also served as president.

Q: Sometimes I get very frustrated that the disabled “suit” activists don’t spend more time doing street action. Do you feel that way too?

A: Though I bitch and moan about the “suits,” I am convinced that, like a successful play on Broadway, there are multiple acts and many roles to play. The one constant in bringing about change is that those on the outside need to build their power to bring about a change in the power relationship. It usually takes many approaches to bring about major social change, from direct action (to) litigation to politics. Take our campaign for lifts on buses. What we did on the streets was most critical; however, we filed a lawsuit -- and let’s not forget about the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

Q:Why do you suppose so many disabled activists won’t move beyond the polite rules of political engagement?

A: Most folks with disabilities feel like damaged goods. We feel inferior to others, and the system treats us extremely paternalistically. We are conditioned to be servile. The other thing that deters involvement is trying to pass in an able-bodied world. We have not really built a disability identity or pride concept in the disability movement. When I got involved, the mantra was, “We’re just like everyone else.” I always thought that was ridiculous. Does “everyone else” pee in a bag, stick a suppository up their butt to defecate? We started with assimilation as our goal and now, trying to build disability identity and pride, (it) often seems an afterthought. In ethnic communities, building identity and pride preceded assimilation. Because things have gotten better in education, employment and in the general acceptance of disability, younger folks don't feel the discrimination as directly as we did. Many folks who previously got involved in disability rights are just moving through the system going to school, getting jobs and integrating into the community. Though this is what we have fought for, it is limiting their involvement in disability rights organizations. Most folks we are trying to reach today are from the post-Reagan era. Community thinking in general has been declining, and the “I,” which has always been paramount in America, is growing.

Q: How well do you think theindependent living movement sets its priorities and uses its power?

A: The IL movement seems not to know where it is going. There doesn't seem to be a vision of how they (IL advocates) fit into the realities of today. They are stuck in the paradigm of the ‘70s. Have you ever asked yourself why conservative rhetoric sounds so much like independent living rhetoric? Think about the early politics of Justin Dart and Evan Kemp, at that time two conservative Republicans. Independence to them was to get away from paternalistic government programs like welfare and Medicaid. All we needed to succeed was a little I&R (information and referral), peer counseling and individual advocacy, and we would get a job, raise a family, integrate into the community and live happily ever after. On the other hand, folks believed people with developmental disabilities would need a lot of case management and a lifetime set of government services. This was the beginning of the IL-DD split (over the issue of who should be able to make the decisions that affect clients), which continues today. My view of IL is summed up by the expression, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there!”

Mike Ervin is a writer and member of ADAPT, a group that works for the civil rights of people with disabilities.

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