| President Obama recently proposed $32bn in cuts to Medicaid and Medicare programmes [GALLO/GETTY]
On September 19, 54 disability rights activists, most in wheelchairs, were arrested for filling the offices of Republican Congressmen Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Dave Camp of Michigan. The demonstrators are members of ADAPT, a national grassroots disability rights group that organizes nonviolent direct actions, including civil disobedience, to assure people with disabilities have the right to live in freedom. That week, hundreds of ADAPT members traveled to the nation’s capitol from all over the country for six days of ‘My Medicaid Matters!’ rallies and actions.
Activists targeted Representatives Hensarling and Camp because they both favour Medicaid cuts and sit on the 12-person "Super Committee," which is tasked with proposing even more drastic spending cuts to reduce the deficit. This committee will determine whether people with disabilities can live independently in their own communities and have access to health services.
Medicaid, a healthcare program that relies on federal and state funding, allows 27-year-old Nichole Villavicencio to live in her own apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota. A passionate disability rights advocate, Villavicencio travelled to Washington DC to tell her story.
Live like everybody else
"Medicaid pays for my personal care attendants who help me get up, get dressed, help me with my food, and help me get to bed at night," she says. "Medicaid pays for my prescriptions and allows me to go to the doctor. We just want to live like everybody else. We want to start families. We want to live in our homes and be independent."
Villavicencio has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that causes muscle weakness and stiff joints. Several of her arm muscles never fully formed so she uses a wheelchair and does everything with her feet. She receives food stamps, $674 a month in Social Security, which is also under threat, and lives in subsidised housing.
The health insurance industry, which continues to post record profits, got a front-row seat during the 2009 healthcare debate. People with disabilities got arrested less than an hour after entering Rep. Hensarling's office for simply wanting to express their views. Villavicencio was held in the Rayburn House basement from 4:30pm on Monday to 9am the next day. It was her first arrest.
"I was surprised they held us so long," she says. "They had a machine that was supposed to scan our hands for fingerprints, but it wasn't working, so they did nothing for three or four hours. They gave us some baloney in the middle of the night and 20 minutes later, I had to puke it up."
The offices of Reps. Hensarling and Camp didn't return my calls, but I did hear back from Sergeant Kimberly Schneider, spokeswoman with the Capitol police. Why were 54 citizens, most in wheelchairs, charged with unlawful entry? "They were asked to leave the office and refused," she said. "Law enforcement had to be called."
ADAPT organisers told me that the quick arrests were unusual. When members usually occupy politician's offices - and they do it often - they make their voices heard for several hours before the arrests begin.
But this is our new reality. Speak your mind. Use your voice. Do it nonviolently. And you'll get arrested, even if you're in a wheelchair. This video shows a cop forcefully pulling a man in a wheelchair out of Rep. Hensarling's office.
For millions of low-income people living in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, this is a life or death issue. Medicaid recipients are being hit by budget cuts in every state across the country. Federal cuts on top of the state cuts would be devastating for the most vulnerable segments of our society. If it weren't for Medicaid, nearly 60 million low-income Americans, including children and seniors, would be uninsured. If the Republican leadership had its way, Medicaid would be decimated. President Obama recently proposed $320bn in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
"Cutting Medicaid is all the rage. What most people don't realise is that small changes can make a huge difference in someone's life," says Chris Hildebrant, a 35-year-old from Rochester, New York. When Hildebrant was 14, he had a spinal cord injury caused by a diving accident. He was the first person arrested in Representative Camp's office.
"This is about reform," he says. "This system is institutionally biased. It's flawed. So much money is spent on nursing facilities where people don't want to be. That money can go a lot further in the community. We've been saying this for decades."
But who's listening? When is the last time you've seen a person with disabilities interviewed on TV? Long-time ADAPT member and media outreach coordinator Janine Bertram told me that I was the only reporter who bothered to call to set up interviews with people who were arrested.
On September 21, ADAPT teamed up with over 90 disability, aging and civil rights groups for the ‘My Medicaid Matters!’ rally. It was the largest gathering of disability advocates in the nation’s capitol since the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed in 1990, and yet it received scant media coverage in both the corporate and alternative media.
"We are so used to them not covering us," says Bruce Darling, ADAPT organiser in Rochester, New York. "We can do a lot because people look right through us. They don't even see us. We can march into offices and they won't see us until the entire place is filled. That's what happened last Monday."
Part of the problem is that the disability rights community doesn't fit the corporate media's predictable left-right paradigm and these issues can't be explained in 30-second sound bites.
"Historically, we've focused on the institutional bias in nursing homes," says Bruce Darling, ADAPT organiser in Rochester, New York. "The people on the right tend to own and invest in the facilities. They don't want to get rid of them. And the people on the left tend to organise the unions that work in the facilities. I refer to us as collateral damage. I watch us get run over by both sides. We're the land of the free unless you need personal assistance. Then you can be removed from your home and thrown in a building where people don't have to look at you. If you did this to any other group, there would be outrage."
There is outrage and it deserves to be heard, not silenced.
Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco. She's the author of "Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland."
Follow Rose Aguilar on Twitter @roseaguilar
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.