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Disability History Highlights in the Film “Crip Camp”

By: Aylin Dunham
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As we move into the decade of the 2020s, we have already experienced a whirlwind of changes in 2020. But we also like to think that it has also been an opportunity for us to look back at history and recognize how many improvements have been made, particularly when it comes to disability rights and advocacy. Within our own industry, we’ve noticed how more people are beginning to take video accessibility to the next level by utilizing closed captioning and transcription and audio description in their content, but in particular, we’ve also noticed how people with disabilities have started to be represented more in the entertainment and film industry.

In late 2019, we saw the release of an innovative new film about disability history. From an accessibility perspective, the documentary film “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” takes a unique approach to disability history, framing itself under the perspective of one group of teenagers in the early 1970s, from youth to young adulthood, up through the mid-1990s. The film details their early experiences at Camp Jened, a Catskills summer camp in New York, and connects their experiences there to the disability movements that occurred throughout the decade and beyond.

Throughout, the film we see how several former members of Camp Jened end up being a part of these key disability movements, which included the 504 Sit-In of 1977 and the peaceful protests that occurred in New York and Berkeley, California around that time. The film recounts not only the outcomes of these disability movements but the individual struggles and accounts of the people involved, shedding light on their real, human experiences as teenagers and young adults growing up in the 1970s.

The film, which is now streaming on Netflix, leaves us with implications of what truly it means to be a disabled person in the United States and the world, revealing that disability is not merely a term that defines them and their experiences but is a source of pride, accomplishment, and hope for the future of disability advocacy. Throughout the film, various key disability laws are referenced. Read below for more information on these important laws and their impact on disability rights.

Key Dates & Outcomes in Disability History

Section 504

In the film, we see how Section 504 was passed after a series of demonstrations that occurred in New York, which were organized by Judy Heumann, former counselor at Camp Jened and director of Disabled in Action (DIA).

The Rehabilitation Act of 1972 was originally put in place to prevent disability discrimination by government entities or organizations that received federal funding, and Section 504 expanded this act further, extending its wording to include an explicit anti-discrimination provision.

While the act was passed under the Nixon administration, we see throughout the film that the passing of this law didn’t mean that it would always be enforced. As the film notes, the 504 Sit-In was instrumental in pushing lawmakers to draw attention to the movement and enforce the provisions of the act.

Section 508

Section 508 was amended as part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1972 until 1998. While this provision was not highlighted in the film, it’s still important to mention as it is an expansion of the rights that the disability advocates in the film fought for throughout the 70s and 80s. The Section 508 provision requires all agencies receiving government funding to ensure that information technology is made accessible to people with disabilities, and requires them to remove any existing barriers. This provision includes requirements for online multimedia content, including audio and video. Note the following wording from the amendment:

Video or multimedia products are covered by section 1194.24 (c,d,e):

“…streaming media, such as broadcasts and cable signals, as well as online presentations must correctly receive and display captions. Training and informational video and multimedia productions must contain open or closed captions.”

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Almost 30 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed on July 26, 1990. It was passed as a federal civil rights law, made in order to prevent discrimination towards the disability community. The ADA states that no individual with a disability can be excluded from participation in or be denied benefits to services, programs or activities, as a result of that disability. The passage of the ADA was a great feat in disability history, as this act applied not only to government funded agencies, but to all public and private entities as well.

In the film, we see how the alumni of Camp Jened feel about the passage of the ADA. Denise Jacobson notes how the ADA was a wonderful achievement, but she also recognizes that passing the law touches only a tiny tip of the iceberg for the disability community, noting the importance of changing society’s attitudes as well.

The State of Disability Today

If there is one thing that we can learn from the film, it’s that learning about disability history and the experiences of people within the disability community is important for all. Behind every law, there are real people with a real stories who are affected, and it is our duty as a video accessibility provider to help spread their narratives even further.

Looking forward in into the state of accessibility today, we can see that while a lot has been done to improve accessibility so far, we still have a long road to go in the journey towards better accessibility. And with a transition to remote work and learning in 2020, Digital Accessibility is now at the forefront of this discussion.

The prevalence of online media and new technologies has led us to constantly reevaluate our practices to ensure that content is accessible to all. Recent cases such as the the settlement between the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and Harvard and MIT now set a precedent to require captioning in all public facing media, and we are paying attention even more to the changes happening in Digital Accessibility today. We encourage you to do your research by watching documentary films like these and doing your own research on accessibility laws and history. We’d like to hear about your experience with digital accessibility and advocacy, so please reach out to us if you have any questions.

Thanks for checking in!