Continuing Disability Civil Rights

black and white footage of men atCamp Jened . all topless in a field and one blacj=k man carrying a white man. someone in a wheelchair in the background.

I recently watched a fabulous documentary called Crip Camp. It provided compelling insight into the American civil rights movement as it relates to people with disabilities. The show was powerful, humbling and inspiring, and got me thinking about not only the work that has been done but how we can all play a role in achieving equality.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere Martin Luther King Jr.

Crip Camp is set in the heady era, beginning in 1960s, of rebellion. Dylan’s times a’changing, Woodstock, Black Panthers and eye-crossingly tight jeans, the time was a bubbling hot pot of radical societal transformations. And it was the time for Judith Huemann, documentary subject, to pick up the momentum of the disability civil rights movement that she had been enacting on a personal level from a very young age.

The term “crip camp”  refers to Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled teens that operated in New York between 1951-1977. It was here that Judith and Crip Camp director and narrator, Jim LeBrecht, formed tight bonds with many people who were experiencing the same discrimination and inequity. And it was here that Judith first got the taste for activism.

image courtesy of

The story the documentary follows, was the monumental twenty-eight day 504 Sit-in, during which hundreds of participants occupied a San Francisco federal building to push against proposed changes to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. At the time, the Rehabilitation Act was the premier disability rights legislation in the United States. Despite this, the Act was seldom followed, with ongoing failure to enforce legislation and President Nixon vetoing earlier versions. After years of Judith’s effort, including a fifty-person blockade on Madison Avenue in 1972, the 504 Sit-in finally got the results it deserved: the Act’s signing in 1973.

The story of the sit-in made me think about how brave those who pioneer such change are, often at their peril. Such activists face potential legal sanctions, community and family ignorance, outrage and ostracisation, considerable discomfort and financial hardship. All in the name of humanitarian, environmental or animal rights. All in the name of making our world a better, more just place.

You are never too small to make a difference Greta Thundberg

Despite outreach help from such groups as the Black Panthers, the endurance of these people to sacrifice comfort, sleep, and the ease of access to medical supplies and equipment, is genuinely awe-inspiring. One participant commented that what kept them going was not the fear of police action or jail but of disappointing Judith, and this shows what inspiring leadership can achieve.

Conditions have been, and continue to be, disgusting for people with disabilities in many parts of the world. Society has long discriminated against the disabled, including abhorrent and dehumanising institutionalization, policies and behaviours that pity and condescend rather than encourage and empower. In fact, The Australian Human Rights Commission receives ‘more complaints of disability discrimination than any other discrimination area’.

As an interesting history note, the American Disability Rights Movement was a significant agent of change for Australia. Australia’s disability movement arguably started in 1896 with the formation of The Association of The Blind (Disability & Society, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1999, pp. 217± 226, Cooper, M). However, our Disability Discrimination Act wasn’t established until 1993, nearly a century later. Another more recent and significant development was the 2013 National Disability Act, leading to our current National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) – a scheme I feel very privileged to be part of and a significant leap in Australia’s quest for social justice.

Image courtesy of Ed Burns 504 Sit-In activist

Activists with true fire-in-the-belly, dogged-determination and an unshaken belief in their cause are those that I truly admire as inspirational change-makers. Marked by a systematic, democratic approach, many activist movements have been a collective force, scorned by the general population who do not understand the reasons for their drastic militant stance. Yet these acts of change are not all this extreme. Many passionate disability activists are effecting change in their workplaces, their interactions with policy makers, their influence in setting up advocacy organisations, and education within our community. We live in different times and there are many ways to engage in activism.

Meaning well doesn’t equate to action, and it is real action that is needed. Christina Ryan, CEO, Disability Leadership Inst.

We see the expanding advocacy for awareness and change happening through the resourceful force of such organisations as Women With Disabilities Australia and People With Disability Australia, together with multiple individual contributions using social media platforms. We see the filtration of disability-related issues and day-to-day life activities, through pictures, writing, speaking and vlogging. Such advocacy is adding to the disability civil rights movement and is changing attitudes and expanding society’s view of what it means to be normal. However, it still needs continued impetus from us all, able-bodied and people with a disability alike. We all need to honour the challenges and sacrifices made by so many to gain an equal footing in a world that was never designed for our most significant minority group.

But we can all do our bit.

We’re all learning, and these are some things that we can do every day that could have a huge impact in continuing the disability civil rights movement:

But first – do yourself a favour and watch Crip Camp!

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