The summer before I turned 10 in 2000 was the first time I’d spent more than a night away from my mother. That year I went to a half week session at a summer camp called Wonder Valley, located a town over from my hometown. It was a church camp and the session I attended, Handi-camp, was open to disabled adults, teens and adolescents. It was what you’d probably expect of a typical summer camp. We did singalongs, crafts, had campfires; there was a zipline, rockwall and even a small cave on the property. What you might not expect is how a church camp led to my eventual passion for disability justice.
As I mentioned, that summer I was just about to turn 10. I was also already keenly aware of my needs and how to advocate for them. This is what ultimately led my parents to decide I was ready for camp. It would be a chance to spread my wings and grow. They were right, being at camp fostered my independence in ways being at school or home couldn’t; it was freedom.
Camp allowed me the chance to reevaluate how I met the needs I was at that point taking care of myself, and in some cases forced me to begin figuring out ways to meet needs I hadn’t quite mastered yet. I quickly realized however that even more important than the independence I was gaining was the community I found at camp. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by disabled adults and kids my own age. We came from all different kinds of communities and were disabled in a ton of different ways, but being disabled was the common bond between us. Our lived experiences may have looked different but so many of our struggles were the same. We all faced social stigmas and societal barriers; we all felt set apart from the rest of the world on some level.
I spent 5 summers attending that camp session, even eventually got baptized in the deep end of the swimming pool. I made friends I’ve lost and friends I know I’ll have for the rest of my life. It was during that last summer I was invited to a different session, one for non disabled older teens. Being the only disabled camper was again an opportunity to become as independent as I could and I took it. After two or three summers attending that session I quit going to camp completely.
In high school I began doing research into disability history and the disabled Civil Rights movement. I can’t remember the exact point I started, but having disability completely skipped in my AP Government lecture on Civil Rights probably had something to do with it. I wrote a lot in my junior and senior years and learned as much as I could get my hands on about this community, this history, that I was a part of. When I graduated I took my new found knowledge, my experiences of ziplining, spelunking and community building, along with my years of built up independence and went off to college.
Because of its renowned reputation as one of the most accessible universities in the country, I set my sights on Ball State University. Once accepted, I began my degree in Communications with a focus on print media and also minored in Creative Writing. Toward the end of my freshman year I also joined the campus organization for disabled students, then named Disabled Students In Action. Through working with the group and socializing with the students in my dorm, I again found myself surrounded by a community of disabled people who, though they didn’t know my life, understood my struggles. In the midst of this community I began to thrive.
The next year, now as president of DSIA, I dove headfirst into growing our organization and connecting with other student-led groups. It was my goal to connect the disabled community with the non disabled community on campus and share my growing knowledge of disability issues and passion for disability rights. Through the support of our advisor and dedication of my officers we did just that. We even rebranded DSIA to Alliance for Disability Awareness (ADA). Through it all my community continued to grow and strengthen. Years later these are relationships I cherish, especially as my ability to advocate and be active in the wider disability community has changed.
I looked back on these experiences as I sat watching Crip Camp with my husband last night. For those who haven’t seen it, Crip Camp is a documentary about how the disabled civil rights movement got its start at a summer camp for disabled teens and adults. Listening to the first hand accounts of the bonds built and relationships begun at this camp, I was immediately taken back to those times when I felt that strong sense of community and togetherness. I remember that feeling described in the documentary of telling someone your story and having them believe you, not because they went through something identical, but simply because they had struggled too. And I remember that near euphoric feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself, something that was creating change. I miss that feeling sometimes.
It’s hard to feel like you’re having an impact when you’re cut off from the people you’ve built with and places where you used to make a difference. It’s hard to change your methods to fit activism that’s done almost entirely online and still feel like you’re a part of something. It’s hard to find new spaces to make a difference and new communities to connect with. But it can be done and it should be done. Community is vital, especially in the times we’re living in now; joining your voice and your efforts with others is imperative.
There is so much work yet to be done, both in ourselves and in the world. It’s already been begun, now it must be continued. The activists and advocates working for disabled civil rights today are part of a proud history of change makers. We owe it to both our history and our future to continue that work.