Igniting a disability rights revolution

Kathi Wolfe (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Recently my cousin Marsha asked me if I wished I didn’t have a disability. I have been visually impaired since I was born. Almost every day a family member, friend or stranger tells me that my life has to suck because I’m blind. I love marsha. But “I don’t want to be disabled,” I said to her, “my disability is part of who I am. It’s part of what makes me Kathi! “

“I like to be who I am,” I added. Why am I proud to be myself in a culture that often stigmatizes me because of my disability and sexuality? The roots of my pride go back to a group of teenagers who listened to rock music, smoked pot, and made out at Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled teenagers in the Catskills, in the 1960s and 1970s.

The story of these campers and how they went from their “mini-Woodstock” to changing the world is told in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”. The documentary, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, is being directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, a former Camp Jened camper. The doc who features rock music, frenzied sexuality and disability pride gives you, non-disabled, handicapped, straight or queer, a contact high.

You will learn from the “Crip Camp” how more than 100 disabled demonstrators, straight and queer, led by Camp Jened alums, took over a federal building in San Francisco for almost a month in 1977. The longest nonviolent takeover of a federal building sparked a revolution in disability rights out.

Fortunately, the documentary doesn’t teach us. The doc does what great documentaries do: He tells an exciting story.

I spent a week at camp when I was nine. I’m sure the camp staff meant well, but I was the only disabled camper there and there was skill. My counselor cut my meat at dinner (although I had no problem feeding myself). I received a “special” award for my “courage”. Though I screamed when I found a tick in my hair.

I would have loved to have been to Camp Jened. There the campers were treated as three-dimensional people. They weren’t anything special. At school, they were often separated into special school classes over the course of the year and avoided by non-disabled children. “I wasn’t in high school,” says Judith (“Judy”) Heumann, a Camp Jened alum and writer with Kristen Joiner of “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memory of a Disability Rights Activist,” on Crip Camp.

But there were make-out sessions behind the bunks at Camp Jened, she adds.

Lionel Je’Woodyard was an advisor to Jened. The disabled teenagers in Jened faced the same discrimination that he encountered when he was black, Je’Woodyard says.

Years later, the seeds of self-esteem planted in Jened as they were teenagers bore fruit.

Heumann, who suffers from polio and uses a wheelchair, is the founder of the disability rights movement. In April 1977, she and the (late) disabled lesbian activist Kitty Cone led a month-long protest against the rights of people with disabilities. The acquisition was supported by the Black Panthers and the LGBTQ community.

Crip Camp conveys the importance of this historic sit-in through archival footage and interviews with Heumann, Cone, queer disability activist and writer Corbett O’Toole, and others. Protests took place in federal buildings in other cities, including Washington. As a result of the protests, the provisions implementing Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act were signed on April 28, 1977.

Section 504 says that if you get federal funding, you can’t discriminate against people because they are disabled. For example, an employer who receives federal funding cannot refuse you employment because you are disabled. This was manna from heaven to us who had been excluded. Section 504 was a precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Sit-In 504 was the stonewall of the disability rights movement. Like many others, I wasn’t there for the sit-in. Still, I wouldn’t be out and proud today if it wasn’t for Section 504 or Camp Jened.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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