Two friends told me to watch Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution on Netflix, who describe the documentary as “A groundbreaking summer camp that galvanizes a group of teens with disabilities to help build a movement forging a new path toward greater equality.”
I watched it three times.
The film, directed by former camper Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, tells of a summer camp in the Catskills (near Woodstock) that created a sense of community and creativity, which led to the enforcement of portions of the American disability rights movement in the 1970s.
Camp Jened was named after some funders in 1951 and shut down after the summer of 1977 due to lack of money. Counselors basically ran the camp as any other camp for young people. These campers were people with disabilities related to polio or cerebral palsy, people with blindness, or people who became disabled after car accidents.
They took part in as many camp activities as their disabilities allowed, in that it gave them a sense of community, hope, and dignity. Campers were not stared at as they would have been back home in everyday places in society. They bonded, talking about other disabilities they all lived with—society limiting and excluding them as unable to be part of life, working, living independently, getting an education, using public transportation, attending concerts, visiting museums and National Parks. They realized from their lived experience that people with disabilities were excluded from everyday life.
Conversations at the dining room tables included boyfriends and girlfriends, popular music, and clothing fads. The real conversations centered around deeper topics: “When will the world see handicapped people as people?” “Do people without handicaps know what it feels like to be excluded?” “It isn’t our problem; it is the people without disabilities’ problem.”
The significance of the camp was that many of the former campers bonded together to become disability activists who played a significant role in passing legislation that focused on inclusion.
Former camp member Judy Heumann started Disabled in Action as a result of a lawsuit against New York City’s Board of Education. She was denied a teaching license, so she sued for discrimination and won the right to conduct classes from a wheelchair. Her groups worked on the deinstitutionalization of disabled persons.
Civil Rights legislation was going on all around the country and Disabled in Action saw that as an opportunity to talk about why they were excluded from society. There were not anti-discrimination laws at the federal level, but members in the senate and house were looking for ways to make that happen. The Rehabilitation Act in 1972 was a perfect vehicle. Buried at the end of the Bill was Section 504, an anti-discrimination provision. The language was drawn from civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Section 504 would include persons with disabilities in many aspects of life, but the ław was not being enforced or put into action. The Disabled in Action group got involved in protesting this lack of enforcement. So Judy Haumann and her group travelled to make legislators aware that the ław passed, but nothing was happening. They sat in San Francisco in the 504 Sit-In of 1977.
It meant that anyone who received federal moneys—hospitals, schools and universities, transportation, etc.—would not be allowed to discriminate. The bill passed, which would have set up a vocational rehabilitation program. It was vetoed by Richard Nixon, who said, “Just costs would be horrendous in terms of their total.” William Ronan, then Director of the NYC Transit Authority, said it would be just impossible in terms of its financial cost to put elevators and ramps in all the train and subway stations.
The Disabled in Action group protested by showing up in wheelchairs and crutches on a busy New York intersection. Fifty people literally shut down streets in New York. In the spring of 1973, the group decided to have another demonstration in Washington, DC. For days, the group demonstrated outside the Department of Health, Education and Welfare office buildings in Washington, DC. A number of those with disabilities, left their wheelchairs on the side of the marble steps and pulled themselves up with their arms to enter the building.
Eventually, President Nixon signed the bill, which was truly a civil rights bill about including those with disabilities wherever federal money was involved. But legislators did nothing to support section 504 of the bill which specifically spoke of rights for persons with disabilities. Although legislation had passed, there was very little reinforcement.
After some peaceful but firm protests of some of Crip Camp’s alumni, the bill finally passed due to some very determined members of Disabled in Action. Crip Camp played a significant part in the beginnings of the ADA—the civil rights legislation started for those with disabilities.
The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) passed on July 26, 1990.