In the 1980s, activists in Chicago fought to make public transportation more accessible

The battle in Chicago helped give momentum to a nationwide fight for legislation to protect people with disabilities.

Curious City disability justice
Courtesy Access Living
Curious City disability justice
Courtesy Access Living

In the 1980s, activists in Chicago fought to make public transportation more accessible

The battle in Chicago helped give momentum to a nationwide fight for legislation to protect people with disabilities.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

A full transcript of the podcast episode is included at the end of this article.

Often when Mike Ervin sees other wheelchair users about to board the bus or enter a train station in Chicago, he feels like catching up to them to say, “You are welcome.”

Curious City Disability Justice Mike Ervin
Mike Ervin, one of four who filed a complaint against the CTA for not providing wheelchair lifts on buses, is embraced by his mother, Ilene, after a major legal victory in 1988. Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times
Many of the things that make public transportation more accessible for people with disabilities today — including lifts on buses and elevators at train stations — didn’t exist 30 years ago. And Ervin, who has used a wheelchair all his life, remembers those days — when there were no ramps on curbs and buses drove right past people in wheelchairs without stopping.

He fought to change that.

“One day it occurred to me that I assumed that I can’t ride the bus,” Ervin said. “And I felt kind of stupid … I was in a mindset that [public transportation is] not for people like me.”

Ervin’s story gets us to a question we’re answering in this week’s podcast episode about the history of the fight for disability rights in Chicago. The question was asked by Zoie Sheets, a disability rights activist and third-year medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Zoie wanted to better understand the role Chicago played in the disability rights movement.

“What have people who came before me done, [and] what things could we do to keep pushing forward to the future?” she asked.

And beyond seeking the answers to these questions, Zoie said she was interested in hearing a story that would highlight the disabilities community, “and the resilience and the strength and how fun and cool it is.”

Curious City disability justice
Susan Nussbaum, left, and Jim Charlton, Access Living employees and members of Chicago ADAPT, block a CTA bus in an act of protest against the inaccessibility of Chicago public transportation. Courtesy Access Living
So Curious City sat down with Ervin and Bob Gettleman, two of the key players who fought to make the Chicago Transit Authority more accessible to people with disabilities in the mid-1980s.

Ervin said he and other disability activists disrupted CTA board meetings and held protests to block the CTA buses.

“The police didn’t know what to do. That’s another thing that makes you powerful is that when the police come, they don’t quite know how to handle a wheelchair,” Ervin said.

Gettleman is a federal district judge today. But back in the ’80s, he was one of the attorneys involved in a landmark civil rights case against the CTA, which required CTA buses to install wheelchair lifts.

Ervin said this win in Chicago helped give momentum to efforts to pass national legislation, the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA — a law approved in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in many areas, including transportation.

In 2008 Congress made changes to the ADA and expanded its definition of disabilities, making it easier for individuals to seek protections under the law.

But the fight for disability justice in Chicago didn’t end with the first victory against the CTA or the passage of the ADA, Gettleman and Ervin said.

“Just because you have a law doesn’t mean that everyone is going to jump in line to comply right away,” Ervin said. “We have to make sure that the budgets don’t get cut. Congress gives and Congress takes away.”

These days, disability rights activists in Chicago make sure laws aimed at protecting the rights of people with disabilities are actually being followed. Advocates also continue to push for policy changes aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities.

To learn more about the history of the disability rights movement in Chicago, push “play” at the top of this story to listen to the episode.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Follow her @AdrianaCardMag.


 ADRIANA CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Hey there, It’s Curious City reporter Adriana Cardona-Maguidad 

(SOUND EFFECTS: Sound of Metra train pulling into station with bell, air brakes, cars passing by) 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: I was at the Metra station recently near my house. I was looking around and I noticed that to get to the platform you have to climb this long steep stairway… There is no ramp, so no way to go up if you’re using a wheelchair. Mike Ervin, knows all about that. He is 65 years old. He’s used a wheelchair his whole life. 

MIKE ERVIN: When you have a disability, and you want to go from point A to point B, you have to first consider whether the means of getting from point A to point B is accessible or not. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike has been a disability rights advocate here in Chicago for a long time. He and other Chicagoans pushed for lots of changes locally, and across the country including the fight to make the Chicago Transit Authority, the CTA, accessible starting with lifts on buses. He also advocated for independent living programs and more protections for people with disabilities at the federal level. 

(ARCHIVE NEWS TAPE: people chanting “What do we want? Access! When do we want it? Now!”) 


CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Thirty years ago, the laws to protect people with disabilities—weren’t as strong as they are today– across many fields, including: education, employment, transportation. And not many cities had public buses with lifts for people in wheelchairs. In the mid 1980s advocates fought to change that here in Chicago. Later, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as the ADA, access to trains and buses improved drastically. And that gets us to this week’s Curious City question by Zoie Sheets. 

ZOIE SHEETS: Chicago played a pretty big role in disability history. I’m just looking to better understand what has our city done, what can our city do better, what have people who came before me done, what things could we do to keep pushing forward to the future. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Zoie is a third-year med student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And she’s lived with a chronic pain disability since she was 11. So, she’s aware of the challenges many people with disabilities face. But Zoie also knows their stories aren’t just about the struggle. 

SHEETS: I do want to know about the history but I also want to prompt a story that would highlight this community and the resilience and the strength and how fun and cool it is. 

(MUSIC: Upbeat, swingin’ 60’s-type music begins, ducks under…) 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: That’s where Mike Ervin’s story comes in… 

ERVIN: One day it occurred to me that I’ve just assumed that I can’t ride that bus. And I felt kind of stupid, that I never thought about, I should ride that bus. If I could ride that bus.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike’s fight for access and inclusion in Chicago and across the country, and the stories of other key players. That and more, just ahead. 


CARDONA- MAGUIGAD:I met up with Mike Ervin in his apartment near the loop.---He lives there with his wife. 

(SOUND EFFECTS: Adriana entering Mike’s apartment, saying hello, indiscernible conversation…) 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike grew up with a form of muscular dystrophy. He says having a disability goes beyond what most people think of when they hear the word “disability.”- It’s not just physical. 

ERVIN: When people think disability the first thing they think is wheelchair. wheelchair, or just being blind. somebody with schizophrenia, or autism or something like that. That also is a condition that affects their ability to do certain things. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike is a writer—He blogs about all the things impacting people with disabilities using wit and sarcasm – in a way most people don’t dare talk about. He is also well known for his radical advocacy. 

(MUSIC: with a “fight for your rights-type feel” begins underneath) 


UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: the CTA’s policy says that if we can get on the bus as long as we don’t ask CTA personnel for help… 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike and other activists were key in the success of a civil rights complaint against the CTA – A fight to make public transportation accessible for people in wheelchairs. Mike was also there in the fight to get the ADA passed in 1990. 


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: After one of its most moving sessions in years the Senate has passed legislation which guarantees people with disabilities greater access to everyday American life… 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: The ADA banned discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of life. including access to jobs, schools and transportation — But let’s back up for a minute — because Mike’s advocacy work started way before the passage of the ADA. 

ERVIN: In the 1960s, there was like a different world… there were curbs everywhere. And if you wanted to get up a curve, you either had to have someone help you or you had to figure out how to do it yourself. 

 CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike’s older sister and his mother had disabilities too. But his mother made sure her kids had access to places in the city…even if that was hard. So he learned to advocate for himself at a young age. Still, like most students with disabilities back then, Mike wasn’t allowed to enroll in his neighborhood school. He had to go to a school only for disabled students. 

ERVIN: We went to a school and it’s called Walter S. Christopher. And that was about a 12 mile back and forth commute from our house. And they would pick us up every morning and take us to the school. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: He says the neighborhood school was about three blocks away. But Christopher brought in disabled kids from all over the city. ERVIN: Some came much farther than us. I like to say we were segregated because we were freaks. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: After college, Mike started thinking about community activism. He started going to Access Living, a disability rights organization. It had just opened its doors in Chicago in 1980. He met up with friends there. And he was hearing all about disability rights advocacy work that was going on in other parts of the country. He also got a book called Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky—a community activist known for his powerful organizing strategies. Aside from all of that… something else motivated him to take action. 

ERVIN: I was a young man, out of college living in a big city wanting to enjoy it. And I lived on a main street. And a CTA bus would go down that street every day. And one day it occurred to me that I just assumed that I can’t ride the bus. And I felt kind of stupid, that I just assumed that I never thought about, I should ride that bus. If I could ride that bus, I could get around it would solve a lot of my problems. I just was in a mindset that is not for people like me. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: He says back then, the CTA had a program to help folks with disabilities get around. It was a door-to-door transportation service that still exists today. 

ERVIN: And some of us used that. But we quickly learned that it was completely inadequate in the same way that it is today. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: It had all kinds of problems. 

ERVIN: You had to be reserved way in advance, like a day and a half in advance, you couldn’t change it if your life changed. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: And that wasn’t all. ERVIN: They’re unreliable in terms of what time they’d show up. There were curfews, like the hours were nine to five on weekends. 

(MUSIC: up-tempo, “get to work”-type music comes in, ducks under) 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike and other activists were so frustrated with the way things were in Chicago. They decided to do something about it. They put together a strategy to push for equal access to public buses. They created a local chapter of a national group called ADAPT– which fought to make public transportation accessible for people with disabilities across the country. Mike says the overarching strategy was to organize people at the grassroots level — while also taking legal action. That’s how Mike met Bob Gettleman… today, he is a federal district judge. But back in the 80s, when he was an attorney, judge Gettleman was asked to join a team of lawyers…


BOB GETTLEMAN: we were suing the Chicago Transit Authority to get lifts put on buses for wheelchairs, there were no lifts at all at the time. And this is before the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Judge Gettleman also has a disability. 

GETTLEMAN: I had polio as a child when I was seven. And I was on braces and crutches for a period of time after that.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: He was off the braces for years. But he’s back using them again after an accident. So, he understands the challenges many people with disabilities face every day. Judge Gettleman and the legal team filed a Civil Rights Complaint against the CTA in 1985. 

GETTLEMAN: We were met with great resistance by the CTA. And uh… what we thought would be maybe a two or three day hearing turned out to be a 10 week trial. 


CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: While Gettleman and other attorneys were putting together their legal case, Mike and other disability rights advocates were taking their efforts onto the streets. And They managed to bring lots of attention to their case.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation placed one of its members on the Archer bus, number 62, and Kent Jones refused to get off.

GETTLEMAN: Mike Irvin and his group called ADAPT… they were militant.


UNIDENTIFIED ORGANIZER: Karen, you get off at one corner, take your time getting off. Mike you go to the next corner take your time getting off, etc.

UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: CTA says we have the right to ride the bus if we can get on it. So… we’re going to get on that bus!

ERVIN: Our first actions were in 1984. And at the time, State Street was a mall. The only vehicles on the street were public transit. So we thought State Street would be a good place to block it. So we went, we planned an action where we went to the corner of State and Adams.


UNIDENTIFIED ORGANIZER: The buses like to get in and out of the mall in 5 minutes. That should keep them there for at least a half an hour if we do that. And people will take your chairs up…

ERVIN: And when the light turned green, about 10 people in wheelchairs just went out into the intersection.


UNIDENTIFIED ORGANIZER: Now, if you get on, the cops say they’re not gonna hassle us, but if you get on…

ERVIN: And then some other people who are with us ran the chain between our wheels, And we blocked the street, and the buses couldn’t go through, and buses started backing up.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Judge Gettleman also remembers how far people were willing to go to prove their point: They wanted to get on those buses.

GETTLEMAN: one woman, particularly, would crawl up the stairs of the bus to get out to the bus and be followed by the person with the wheelchair. And, some of the passengers would cheer, some of the passengers would be upset because it took so long.

ERVIN: And eventually a paddy wagon showed up. And the police didn’t know what to do. That’s another thing that makes you powerful is that when the police come, they don’t quite know how to handle a wheelchair. They can’t just throw you in a police car or anything. And the police were picking us up in our motorized chairs and putting us into the paddy wagons. But it was very powerful to me to block that street because I felt that this was a really good expression of resolve… of how important this was the lengths we would go through and again that we weren’t going to take no for an answer.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike says he and others felt disrespected each time they couldn’t get on a public bus. So they disrupted CTA board meetings… they mocked board members during those meetings… and they even blocked buses. ERVIN: As opposed to just writing letters and being polite, because I felt that was too easy to dismiss and ignore. And I enjoyed not only realizing that I had power and helping other people realize they had power but asserting it in the way that we did.


CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Finally, four years later, all that protesting and the legal action paid off. In 1988, Judge Gettleman and the team won their lawsuit against the CTA. Mike says there was a front page story in the Tribune. A big headline in the Sun-Times. Mike gets emotional when he remembers that day.

ERVIN: And then page three there was a great big picture, all page about it, picture of my mother hugging me. And things like that.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Winning against the CTA meant that buses in Chicago would need to have lifts to help people in wheelchairs get on and off. But the change didn’t happen right away. It took several years for all the buses to have lifts. Still. Mike says all the attention they got during this fight in Chicago helped generate more momentum for the Americans With Disabilities Act- federal legislation that eventually gave more protections for people with disabilities… in all aspects of their lives, More on that coming up after the break.


(SOUND BITE OF ARCHIVE NEWS TAPE: huge crowd at protest chanting “ADA now! ADA now! ADA now!”)


CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: After the CTA victory here in Chicago, activists like Mike wanted more. They wanted stronger federal laws passed, laws that would get them access to transportation… but also to jobs, housing, and education.

ERVIN: It was very important to us that the ADA be stronger than our lawsuit settlement so that the city couldn’t just go, well, we changed our mind. We’re going back, they’d have to keep going in that direction.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Chicago activists went to Washington DC, and met with public officials. Some were even there in 1990, during the Capitol Crawl, a demonstration where people got out of their wheelchairs and actually pulled themselves up the steps of the capitol.

(SOUND BITE OF ARCHIVE NEWS TAPE: people chanting “Go! Go! Go!”)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: People with various disabilities are out of their wheelchairs and crawling and climbing up the Capitol steps.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: A few months later the ADA was signed into law by President George Bush.


PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: I now lift my pen to sign this Americans With Disabilities Act, and say let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down. God bless you all!

(SOUND BITE OF ARCHIVE NEWS TAPE: applause, whistling, cheering)

ERVIN: I think what we did in Chicago with the CTA, both the lawsuits and the street actions were key in making sure the ADA is what it is today in terms of public transportation and in general in terms of how effective it can be.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Judge Gettleman says the ADA isn’t just for people with disabilities. It was a victory for everybody.

GETTLEMAN: You can become disabled, or acquire a disability in a heartbeat, you get hit by a car, you can come down with an illness. I hope you don’t, of course. And as we age, more people acquire disabilities as they age and need accommodations.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: The ADA improved access to transportation. In cities like Chicago, buses didn’t just need lifts, they were mandated to have designated accessible stations, and working elevators. The ADA also required public trains and buses to call out the stops. So people who are blind know when to get off the bus or when to get on a train. But while the ADA required a lot of changes, Mike says that wasn’t necessarily enough. Activists like him making sure the laws were enforced.

ERVIN: Just because the law requires it doesn’t mean that everyone runs down and does them. Just because you have a law doesn’t mean that everyone is going to jump in line to comply right away no matter how far high it comes from or how right it is or anything else.


CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: In the early 2000s… disability groups filed another complaint against the CTA… because there were some issues going on: like broken elevators in some key stations…and buses that didn’t always stop to pick up people with disabilities – which meant… the CTA was in violation of federal ADA law. Mike says most recently, in 2019, a north-side train station was redesigned. But it’s still not accessible to people in wheelchairs.

ERVIN: Belmont on the Blue Line. They spent millions of dollars redoing it, but didn’t put in an elevator. We still run into problems where you have to fight anyway. And the ADA just makes it easier, or gives you another tool, or maybe reduces the number of fights, or maybe, or changes your strategy. But you still have to fight.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: CTA officials say more than 70 percent of rail stations are accessible… but their goal is 100 percent. They say they’ve spent the last decade working with the disability rights community to improve access. Congress expanded the definition of disabilities… and made changes to the ADA in 2008 But Mike says advocates have to keep a close watch, to make sure budgets for disability programs don’t get cut. Despite the many challenges in the fight for equal access, he says a lot of things are better. Many people who have a hard time moving around like him are able to live independently and find the right support and get around a lot easier than before.

(MUSIC: Up-tempo  funk-rock) 

ERVIN: Whenever I’m out on the street, and I see someone use the wheelchair using public transit, especially rather nonchalantly like why not? It’s part of life always feel like, Oh, you’re welcome. I just feel like going up to them and saying that, but it’s good to see that it has become so nonchalant.

CARDONA- MAGUIGAD: Mike says… when given the resources and the accessibility, many people with disabilities can fully participate in society, and have control over their own lives.

Curious City is supported by the Conant Family Foundation and produced by Jason Marck, Joe DeCault, and Adriana Cardona-Maguigad. Maggie Sivit is the digital and engagement producer. Asia Singleton is our intern. And Alexandra Salomon edits the show. Follow us @WBEZCuriousCity