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From Disability Rights to Disability Justice: a Reflection on Crip Camp and 30 Years of the ADA

When my friend Micah and I sat down to watch “Crip Camp,” directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, we were excited to see that a film like this was on Netflix. However, we were also skeptical about this being the same type of film that we’ve always seen in mainstream media. The kind that spins a normal, Disabled person’s life into some grand, “inspiring” triumph — what many Disabled people call “disability porn” — to make able bodied people feel good. This kind of story is centered around the white male perspective all too often. The people who wrote the story are white. But the story they tells in their recent film is not just their story; it takes a much wider, more community-centered view and that is what sets this film apart. The story feels interpersonal rather than personal. We were encouraged by the way that he told this story.

Throughout our viewing of Crip Camp, we felt anger at the injustice Disabled people have always faced, and at how their power has been oppressed and co-opted by the Abled majority, but also happiness, because we know that we are on the shoulders of some very powerful people. Many Disabled folks know the feeling of having to constantly try to adapt to a world that isn’t built with you or your body in mind. The featured Crip Campers, many of whom would later become leading Disability Rights activists, wanted to be part of the world, but they also wanted a world that resonated with and reflected their experiences. Camp Jened brought Disabled folks together in a way that did just that, and in community with others, many found a new personal and communal power. Without them, we would not be here today.

Like the activists in the film, building Disability Community has been a key part of the organizing work Micah and I do. From the beginning, we have just tried to focus on getting Disabled folks together, to connect, share, and heal in community; to love and celebrate each other and our bodies in all their ways of being. Over the past five years of doing this work, we have constantly wondered, “Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing enough?” by just loving and being there for one another. Watching this film helped me realize that we are, because that’s what they were doing. That’s what these activists were doing. The first generation of Disability activists discovered their collective power through loving each other, supporting each other, and creating systems of mutual aid.

But then something happened. The great victory of passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be swept away by the roaring thunder of white supremacy, male dominance, ableism, and capitalism that would shape and attempt to derail the Disability Rights movement for decades to come. Although the ADA is a Civil Rights law that changed life for People with Disabilities for the better, every law we have still exists within a system that is founded on White Supremacy, which is upheld by ableism. Over the years, many well-meaning, mostly White, Able-bodied people have found ways to appropriate the struggle for Disability Rights and Justice, from commodifying Disabled bodies in the medical and care industries, to encouraging charity, pity, and awareness in the nonprofit industrial complex. Disabled people still face much fear, stigma, exclusion, and often, violence. We may have won our Civil Rights on paper, but in many ways, our existence in society is still treated as conditional.

During the film, activist Judy Heumann gave testimony that resonated with us deeply, decades later. She said, “I’m really tired of being thankful for accessible toilets. If I have to feel thankful for an accessible bathroom, when will I be really equal in my community?” While the members of Generation ADA — those who grew up after the passage of the ADA — are as thankful for accessible toilets as anyone, we have come to expect them. We’ve come to expect them, to expect inclusion, and to expect more from a society that claims to provide liberty and justice for all. Although we have come to expect these things, and indeed to take much for granted, Disabled people are still having to fight for many forms of access, from access to basic health insurance to daily care to remain in one’s community. And bathrooms? One half of our little duo is a trans Southerner. Don’t get us started on bathroom access.

Some of the activists featured in the film have passed on, but some, like Judy Heumann and Jim, remain active in the movement. I think, even for the strides they made, these activists would also be angry right now, because they fought so hard and yet we’re still fighting to be able to go to the bathroom after thirty years. The fight must now shift from wanting to be accepted into society as it is, to transforming society and dismantling the White Supremacy and Ableism it’s been founded upon.

In order to do this, we must look to the framework of Disability Justice. Created by Queer, Trans, People of Color, the Disability Justice movement seeks to understand Disability within the context of other forms of oppression through Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989), and its core tenets of cross-movement solidarity and collective liberation. After all, the Disability Rights activists wouldn’t have been able to maintain their occupation of the Federal Building in San Francisco without the direct support of groups like the Black Panthers. As the Movement for Black Lives calls for society to reckon with the violence of systemic racism, we must be in solidarity with them, and we must act.

As Denise Sherer Jacobson says near the end of the film, “The ADA was a wonderful achievement but it was only the tip of the iceberg. You can pass a law, but until you change society’s attitudes, that law won’t mean much.” In this moment of pandemic and social uprising it has become abundantly clear that our attitudes shape our laws, which then shape our collective cultures. A simple change in how we look at things could help us change the world.

This story has been edited to reflect the names of the two co-producers of the film, Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht.

Continue this conversation with us! Register to join our webinar, “From Disability Rights to Disability Justice” on August 19 at 8:00 pm ET.

Amanda Stahl is a Queer, Disabled Activist from Louisville, KY. She is the founder of the Independence Seekers Project (ISP).

Micah Peace is a Queer, multiply Disabled Activist from Louisville, KY. They are an Educator of small humans by day and an Activist by night.

Together, Amanda and Micah serve as Disability Access Coordinators for Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).

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SURJ is a national network that moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice.

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