On July 26, 2020 the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) celebrates its 30th anniversary. As all of you should know, the ADA entitles persons with disabilities (PwDs) equal access to every aspect of American society, thus prohibiting discrimination. The ADA has opened doors to PwDs regarding education, employment, recreation, transportation, and all other public places. The landmark law covers these areas in five titles or sections.
Although Senator Tony Coelho and Senator Lowell Weicker introduced the disability bill to Congress in 1988, its nucleus was in a New York camp called Camp Jened for teens with disabilities in the 1970’s. The camp, thought to be the Woodstock for the Disabled, and the defiant disability movement that was derived from it are featured in a Netflix documentary called Crip Camp. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, the film was written by a former camper, James LeBrecht. Since LeBrecht wanted to be a film director, he filmed much of his camp experience. A local film crew named People Video Theater interviewed fellow campers. After his camp experience, LeBrect continued to gather video footage from the struggles that former campers faced and landmark events of the disability movement in the documentary.
The documentary evoked different emotions as I watched it. Empathy came over me as I listened to campers discussing how society or their parents didn’t treat them normally. Discussions occurred while they ate. Some said their parents prevented them from doing things because they were “handicapped”. Some parents didn’t even allow their children, who were teens, the basic right of privacy. Although my parents love me, they treated me the same.
Back then, we were considered public burdens, freaks. One camper said they encountered obstacles when they took day trips into town. Steps didn’t allow their wheelchairs to enter buildings; attitudes made the campers feel unwanted. Camp Jened made them feel non-disabled, however, giving them the freedom to do what people in the outside world were doing. The campers strived to be just as free when summer ended and they had to go home.
Sadness gripped me when the documentary went on to show individuals like myself, who needed personal care assistance and who couldn’t speak, in institutions. For a moment, I thought I was watching scenes out of a Holocaust movie. Institution staff fed emaciated bodies mush. One hundred or so individuals crowded in a room; some laid on the floor, others unclothed. Tears swelled up in my eyes as I felt so grateful for the ADA.
Those gruesome images also enraged Judith Heumann, who attended Camp Jened and later became the primary leader of the Disability Rights Movement. Crip Camp shows Judith’s courage, drive, and tenacity as she battled personal and public discrimination. Because she was denied a teaching position due to her polio, she started an organization called Disabled in Action. The documentary makes you feel the energy and the frustration Judy shows as she organized protests, especially the Section 504 Sit-in at the San Francisco Office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The 28-day protest was against Secretary Joseph Califano’s refusal to sign Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits programs that receive federal funds from discrimination against persons with disabilities. Although Crip Camp showed how the sit-in participants experienced brutal conditions, it also showed how they didn’t surrender and even spurred other protests across the nation, forcing Califano to sign Section 504.
Yet, Heumann and millions of other PwDs still felt like second-class citizens. In a speech, she said, “If I have to be thankful for accessible toilets, when am I gonna ever be equal in the community?” Section 504 only covered federally funded businesses. That meant commercial and private companies could discriminate against us. For example, restaurants weren’t required to install ramps and elevators; human resource departments could refuse to accept applicants with disabilities. We weren’t equal with all other Americans. Once again Heumann helped organize protests across the country, including Washington D.C, to create a civil rights law for PwDs. One of the most gripping scenes in Crip Camp is when people got out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the steps of Congress. Our determination and persistence, along with the support of such congressmen as Sen. Tom Harkin and Sen. Ted Kennedy, the ADA became law July 26, 1990.
From the days of Camp Jened, we have strived dramatically thanks to the ADA. Major companies have employed PwDs, including promoting them to executive officers. We can travel across the countries in buses, trains, and airplanes. If we go into a restaurant, the waiter/waitress serves us without any hesitation. Many business owners now go out of their way to make accommodations available to us.
Yet, we still have a way to go. The biggest challenge right now is healthcare. During this period of uncertainty, the care of many PwDs has been overlooked. During the pandemic, some hospitals have rationed ventilators to patients with disabilities. Some doctors assume we couldn’t live very long if we contract the virus. Additionally, because of COVID, many caregivers have quit. They’re either fearful of getting sick or choosing to take unemployment benefits instead of working.
Crip Camp already won Sundance’s Audience Award and Miami International Film Festival’s Zeno Mountain Award. I’m hoping that if it wins the Golden Globe or Oscars’ Best Documentary, more of the public will realize the importance of the ADA and the reason we need to continue to enforce and amend it to include healthcare equality.