By Maria R. Palacios
I watched Crip Camp. I watched it on the very same day it was made available on Netflix, and although I had wanted to watch it in a viewing party and surrounded by the company of other crips, I sat on my bed that afternoon and opened up a screen that led my crip identity climb back into my own experience of community and crip liberation, my own journey toward the realization of how beautiful and important crip friendships really are, and how our collective advocacy is able to part seas and move mountains —because when disabled people come together, we do so with truths that are relevant to everybody’s future and everybody’s reality.
As much as the world wants to negate our existence, throw us away, or deny us access to society, when disabled people join forces, we become advocacy like never seen before. We show the world how it’s done, how we survive and keep surviving because while society is busy dismissing our lives, we are busy living, busy surviving, busy creating community, creating revolutionary activism and making sure other disabled people know just how beautiful our crip solidarity is, how important our cross-disability friendships are, and how much we learn from each other. Crip Camp, to me, was about all that, and about the importance of sharing as much of our history as possible because nobody else is going to do it for us, and because when we do, the disabled people who don’t yet have crip friendships will realize how much we truly need each other, and how powerful we become when we come together joining forces through the experience of our shared struggles and collective advocacy.
Not every disabled person has or has had the opportunity to learn about crip solidarity in the fun and safe space of a Crip Camp experience. Most cross-disability friendships, and the lessons of life with a disability often come from hospital and rehab stays where many crips get their first exposure to others like themselves before getting thrown into the ableist world that forces normality out of our disabled lives.
For me, growing up disabled gave me early exposure to others like myself, but, such exposure was almost always in the medical model mold of cultural oppression and forced normalization of bodies that looked like mine. I grew up, part of my life, trapped in institutions and medical facilities where disabled children and disabled people were left to be “fixed”, and in some cases, left to die. It was those early friendships what gave me the foundation of my love for disabled people…my first realization of what ableism was, although back then, there was no name for it —disabled lives simply were broken. Nobody ever questioned that. Not even us, as disabled people. Those of us who grew up disabled had a lot of unlearning to do. My unlearning and “crip camp” experience did not happen until I came to the United States as a teenager and spent part of my summer at the Lions Club Camp, here in Texas, where for the first time ever, I was among a group of other disabled kids outside of a hospital setting. Unlike most American children who grew up disabled in the United States, my childhood growing up in Latin America was pretty lonely. I was the only disabled kid in the entire school (during the times I actually went to school), or I was homeschooled, or went without any school during weeks of hospitalizations and body casts that confined me to a bed for months, and sometimes years at a time. My friendships with other disabled people had always been around painful experiences and the forced medicalization of our disabled bodies. Going to camp that summer, when I was fifteen, was a first peek into what crip liberation could look like —a look into the window of the crip advocacy that was yet to come as part of my journey.
It wasn’t until my young twenties that I came to immerse myself into the energy of disability culture. The words disability and culture, however, were not something yet woven into our consciousness as crips. The movement, back then, was about breaking physical barriers and building ramps. It was about breaking chains and building paths. It was about recognizing our most basic human rights and the right to own our lives and make our own choices. —Own our lives, and make our own choices….it seems so basic, but to disabled people the right to do that has been taken away or never given to us.
I came into the Independent Living movement still fresh out of the cultural shell that had sheltered me from the truths of other disabled people. I remember being shocked at the sight of disabled people being productive —disabled people in positions of authority. Disabled people employed. Disabled people living on their own. Disabled people driving. Disabled people doing all the things I had been told I would never do. My first visit to my local CIL (Center for Independent Living) was the door leading to the rest of my life as a disabled woman. The crip role models that shaped my life were crip warriors whose lives resembled my own, whose scars reminded me of mine, and whose stories validated my own story in ways that transcend race, culture and language, and although I was just a young and shy immigrant girl, the badassness and crip power of my new peers pushed me to discover my own power and the beauty of my personal crip identity. Shortly after getting involved with HCIL, I was also introduced to ADAPT, the group of revolutionary crips whose advocacy became nationally known for their direct action protests and radical activism that passed the ADA thirty years ago. My involvement with ADAPT is responsible for the thick roots of disability pride that became the mother tree of my Goddess persona. My involvement with ADAPT was MY Crip Camp experience, my personal liberation from the institutionalization of my cultural upbringing.
But my personal history of positive crip identity did not necessarily come over night. In fact, my involvement with ADAPT took me to experience for the first time EVER what being treated like a real adult felt like —the freedom to choose for myself. I was young and beautiful although, at the time, I really didn’t believe that. Part of me had been too traumatized by the medicalization of my polio body and the weight of all the ableist lies I had been forced to believe. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by disabled people whose passion an independence I wanted to experience. I wasn’t sure how to handle being so free. Nobody had ever before respected me enough to let me decide for myself although I was already in my twenties. Nobody had ever before prepared me for so much freedom. It was exhilarating and terrifying. It was the beginning of the rest of my life as a disabled person.
The truth about crip liberation is that it is different for each of us, but once we experience that freedom, we simply want more. I wanted more. I wanted more, but for me there was always a void, a something I couldn’t name. It took me years to understand how my crip identity was also connected to my cultural identity, to my immigrant identity, to my bisexual identity, and to so many other aspects of myself which I felt would never fit in with the white crips whose power I saw as Godly when the ADA was passed. I had been part of that energy. I was at the Capitol Crawl and witnessed the amazing advocacy of Justin Dart, and Judy Heumman, crip heroes of our disability rights. I looked up to them so much, but I couldn’t see myself in them although we were fellow polios. I didn’t know what to call this back then, but I know now it was me wanting “more” while trying to find myself in the traveled roads of other disabled people.
Life has a way of teaching us the lessons we must learn as we evolve into ourselves, as we discover our own versions of Crip Camp —the crip friendships that change our lives and shape our futures. Disabled people are lessons of survival, lessons of advocacy and solidarity to the world. As the world is brought down to its knees by COVID19, disabled people already have a deep understanding of survival and endurance. Disabled people have ALWAYS had to fight to stay alive. We have had to create our own versions of Crip Camp, in our own communities. We’ve done it with minimum resources and while under constant ableist attacks on the value of our humanity.
One day, nondisabled people will be one of us. It’s not a curse. Disability is a natural part of life, but fear of us and our differences makes the normies believe they’re immune to the possibility of disability being painted in the landscape of their personal lives. We, the pitiful cripples, we are just supposed to be the charitable cases of history, the poster children of society, the ones you help from afar but are not invited to be part of your communities —and although you may not say that, it’s been said by denying us access to life unless it is framed in the context of the medical model lies, that to this day, imprison so many disabled people.
Crip Camp gives disabled people a chance to break their own chains of ableist oppression and see a different reflection of ourselves , one that doesn’t have to negate our disabled bodies or our disabled lives. Crip Camp reminds disabled people about how much we’ve had to fight for our basic rights, and how much we still have to fight for our basic rights. It’s like, so much has changed, and at the same time, so little has. In the end, Crip Camp is about the realization that we need each other. —That our power comes not from the nondisabled world, but from the shared lessons of advocacy and solidarity that move mountains and part seas of ableist oppressions.
As a disabled woman able to represent multiple minority identities, I dare say my crip identity is the one that best highlights and represents my humanity and who I am. It is my crip community the most important family I have, the most cherished resource in my life. Crip Camp is a reminder of all that, and with all my heart, I wish for all disabled people to find their way home to a crip community of their own. I hope they are able to experience the power and the love, the truths that have been worn by the crip advocates of the past, and the crip survivors of today. Every disabled person, I hope, finds a way to their own Crip Camp. All of us crips need that, and we must never forget that needing each other is part of the power that keeps us alive in a world that has no problem negating the value of our disabled lives.
May all of us crips always build and find community in one another for such is our legacy of advocacy and liberation.
Our disabled lives are ALWAYS worth living!