Reviewing Crip Camp

Crip Camp is about a group of activists with disabilities who met as teenagers at a summer camp in New York State and took over a federal building when the Carter administration wasn’t agreeing to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

As a person with a disability who is working to increase access to government for people with disabilities, I have mixed emotions about Crip Camp. On one hand, I have nothing but appreciation and respect for those who came together and fought for my civil rights while I was a child. On the other hand, the documentary reminded me of how much is still yet to be achieved.

The beginning of the documentary uses real footage and current interviews to tell us about life for the future activists at summer camp. As a blind person who attended a summer camp for kids who were blind or low vision, I could very much relate to the experiences of the campers profiled in the documentary. I, too, loved the inclusion at camp I knew I would never experience at home.

I will always remember being the only kid at camp to swim across the lake and be classified as a whale. For the rest of the summer, I was the only kid who could go anywhere in the lake I wanted.

At home, I couldn’t go in the deep end of the pool my parents paid to join because the club was afraid of liability and my parents didn’t support me.

Like the people profiled, I had way more friends at camp than at home. Like them, I felt free of having to prove myself at camp. At camp, I could be myself. At camp, I wasn’t the only one like me.

Unlike those profiled in the movie, I wasn’t an outgoing kid. I would never have engaged in wild activities, in part, to help people feel more comfortable around me. I couldn’t understand why most people weren’t comfortable around me and I wasn’t then and never will be willing to be someone I’m not to solve their problem.

Eventually, I stopped going to camp. The high of being largely accepted wore off as I considered the reality I was unlikely to enjoy that level of acceptance anywhere else.

On what wound up being my last night at camp, I was lying in my bed listening to the frogs. Part of me wanted to focus on the fun I had been having and the memories I had made. Most of me realized it had been a temporary diversion from my life as a misfit teenager my family, school, and society didn’t want to accommodate and wasn’t willing to try to understand.

Listening to the frogs, I decided not to go to camp again. The few-week break from my reality was more of a tease than it was a help. What was the sense of being a whale at camp when I would go home and back to refusing to go to the local pool where I had less rights than children half my age?

Sometimes, I wonder if giving up on camp had been a mistake. Maybe I would have had friends with disabilities. Maybe those friends would have helped me more easily navigate the world that didn’t want us navigating it. Maybe their support would have helped me be less angry than I was in my twenties. Maybe being less angry would have led me to do more to make things better.

Then I return to reality. I remind myself that I’m literally the first and only blind person to work for the city of Portland. I remember my days as the only blind person at my law school. I remember my time as the only totally blind undergrad when I was in college. I think of the political events I have attended where I was the only person with a disability.

Mostly, I think of the vast majority of people who–whether they know it or not–will never consider me their equal.

I will never be good enough to be their good friend.

I will never be good enough to be a casual acquaintance.

I sure as hell could never be their lover. The idea would never cross their mind.

Sure, they may think it’s because they don’t want to offend me. Or they may think they don’t know how to act around me. It could be they have lots of assumptions about me and my capabilities that just happen to be negative. No matter what they think, the outcome is the same–they will never see me as their equal.

When I consider my personal reality, I know it’s directly tied to what hasn’t been accomplished by Section 504, the subject of the documentary, or the Americans With Disabilities Act. The laws were intentionally written to be largely toothless. The federal government rarely enforces them. Congress has never fully funded them. Local governments have never considered them a priority. Businesses fight to weaken them. Courts largely side with business and against our civil rights.

While those who forced acceptance of Section 504 deserved to have their courageous story told, the truth is the system always wins.

In 1977, when the protest took place, those who sacrificed so much would have never imagined that 43 years later 70 percent of blind people would be unemployed. They wouldn’t have imagined that 43 yers later the existence of a disability would make one much more likely to live in poverty. They wouldn’t have believed that 43 years later I would be talking with people experiencing disability from around the nation about the reality that no local government really complies with Section 504 or the Americans With Disabilities Act that was adopted in 1990.

While I appreciated the public getting a rare look at the discrimination people with disabilities faced before and during their fight to get Section 504, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much is still inaccessible and how little society is willing to do about it.

I hope everyone watches Crip Camp. If you do, I hope you spend time thinking about how little has really changed and wondering what you can do to help.

Crip Camp is important. Its most important contribution is almost certainly overlooked. Crip Camp matters because it tells a story that if you pay attention leaves you with an ending that acknowledges how much has not been done. The question moving forward is what are we going to do to finish the work those brave people began in 1977?

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