"I Like People Who Make Trouble": Crip Camp and the Perils of Abled Reviewers
Updated: Feb 11
Watch the film on Netflix, you won't regret it.
It will be a great hour and a half for you.
Then tell everyone else to watch it, because they've stopped listening to me.
"Most animal species abandon or destroy members of the group who are maimed and deformed. The following programme will remind you they exist."
- The depressingly accurate narrative of a newscast featured in Crip Camp
"I became paralyzed with fear." One of the very few abled people in this film said. "I was not prepared for the visual of so many disabled people at one time." Then, he piped down and passed over to some disabled people.
The able bodied storytellers were refreshingly few and far between. Not that at any point they were left out or missed, their help was acknowledged at the vital moments, but they were not being given the tasks of telling a story that wasn't theirs.
I've read quite a few reviews of Crip Camp by now, and a lot of them made me roll my eyes. I expected that, of course. They're reviewing a disabled story, there's always going to be an amount of self reflection and often when people realise they've never even considered parts of our history before, that guilt comes across as sappy. (One of the ones I read centred their whole article around the fact that at one point during the filmed scenes at the summer camp in the 70s, a room full of disabled people said they didn't want lasagne. Because they said no. I don't know if this was a surprise to them?)
There are a lot of hits for "Crip Camp" + "inspiration" or "feel-good". Even though I don't like "inspirational" (which even Netflix labels it as) for a multitude of reasons that I will tell you about AT LENGTH if I've had enough to drink, I tolerate it as one of the few standard words the abled have to describe our experiences.
Feel-good was an interesting one though.
Part of me wondered whether we'd been watching the same film, as what I watched was an incredibly well made documentary, an empowering story about some specific campaigns, but that was at pains to show that it never ends. One battle doesn't end the war, and the war never ends. They won their battle to implement clause 504 (a clause that would force all American buildings using government money to be accessible to disabled people), and then a few years later were back trying to keep it there because as one participant eloquently put it, "disabled people know… every day of our lives, the world doesn't want us around and wants us dead".
Part of the joy in Crip Camp for me, is watching it and imagining the reaction of others. How I internally giggle when I imagine someone, who has been unlucky enough to never know one of us personally and so has never been able to shake off the prejudice, trying to swallow their shock of an older man with Cerebral Palsy talk about the first time a girl felt his cock.
That there was someone filming at the camp these incredible teenage moments of finally existing in a world designed for them was incredible luck, that the film was good is something else. So many of the instrumental members of this rights movement have since died, from these old videos they can speak for themselves, through the political discussions of their oppression, the proof during these summers that things can be better for them and of course the unfortunate camp wide outbreak of crabs.
Of course to imply that this is the beginning of the disability rights movement, as I have seen, is erroneous. We've been mad as hell for much longer than that, and of course Judy Heumann had already sued the United States government, and won, to be allowed to teach by the time the film starts. The disability rights movement in America can date itself back to the late 40s, logically when you think about it, with the number of veterans returning from the war with newly acquired disabilities, but the activists featured in Crip Camp are what disability historians would class the Independent Living Movement.
These were the people who decided that being allowed to exist was not sufficient, and they needed to be allowed to live. Stemming from the early 60s and inspired by other civil rights movements, they argued that only disabled people truly knew their own needs and it was up to them to design the solutions and fight for them.
They describe the social hierarchy amongst the disabled groups outside the camp, where "polios" were at the top and "CPs" were at the bottom, as those least able to hide their impairment (which while incredibly messed up is characteristic of this time in disability history).
One of the "CPs" describes his parents, on announcing his marriage to a fellow CP, declaring "I understand why you wanted to marry a handicapped girl, but couldn't you have found a polio?"
His wife describes an occasion where she was given an unnecessary surgery because the doctors couldn't comprehend that she might have contracted a sexually transmitted infection, what with her being all disabled.
"He said 'you know, I think you might have gonorrhoea' and for one brief moment I was so proud of myself."
- Denise Jacobson
This particular group becoming national news was a fluke of luck. Even with all the noise they were making about such a vital subject, all the marches, the sit ins, the committee meetings and shouting at senators, it was like the national news agencies were trying really hard to not notice or care about the disability civil rights movement. And this wasn't exclusive to America, all over the world considerable effort was being put into ignoring disabled people and pretending they weren't campaigning for better treatment.
And when they had succeeded in their fight for much needed rights? They were told to be grateful and stop expecting so much special treatment. Now of course we know that 'special treatment' actually means 'even the slightest effort to bring disabled people closer to equality' and that they were "sick of being grateful for an accessible toilet" when discrimination was not just rampant but encouraged.
It's important to note that the film doesn't stop at a happy ending (as much as some articles claim). It finishes with a reminder of yet another, and maybe the most well known, protest of the disability rights movement in America, the Capitol Crawl in March 1990.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was a culmination of years of campaigning. It would finally give disabled people equal rights under the law to jobs, housing and transport, but in the early months of 1990 it was being stalled in Congress in an attempt to stop it from passing. The disability activists got mad, and decided to cause some trouble, and as the journalist who reported on the 504 sit in said, and I agree, "I like people who cause trouble."
They came from all over into Washington DC, to the steps in front of the Capitol building, discarded their mobility aids at the bottom and heaved, dragged and hauled themselves up the stairs to make them see what they were putting up with.
The ADA was eventually passed in July of that year, with the subtext that this would carry on, and every single miniscule and logical step on the way to equality for disabled people would have to be fought for. And still is. So that'll be fun.