Remembering activist histories

(An edited version of this piece was published in Business Standard under the headline ‘A Different Dissent’.)

It is easy to characterize activists as angry, flag-waving troublemakers who oppose everything merely for the sake of drawing attention to themselves but this perception erases the crucial role they play in shaping public policy. Many of them put their physical safety and mental well-being at great risk to hold governments accountable, and ensure that politicians act in accordance with their obligation to serve the people. These activist histories need to be remembered and told so that we do not take our civil rights for granted.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020), a documentary film directed by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, does a fine job of honouring key figures from the American disability rights movement who first met at Camp Jened — a summer camp in the United States that was specially designed for teenagers with disabilities. Apart from providing a forum to share their common concerns about living in an ableist world, this camp that started in the 1950s was also about self-discovery and political awakening. It was a place for freedom from parents, teenage romance, sexual exploration, and a training ground for them to create the world they wanted to live in.

Currently streaming on Netflix, this 108-minute movie offers a unique entry point into the trajectory of events that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. It shows disabled persons as agents of change who are architects of their own destiny, not helpless recipients of charity begging for crumbs. They are astute, resourceful and confident individuals who advocate for the removal of architectural and attitudinal barriers that keep them from realizing their full potential. It’s a long fight; what keeps them going is their sense of humour, and the strength they draw from each other.

Using archival footage, personal interviews and narrative commentary, the filmmakers tell their stories in a way that seems warm and respectful, not invasive or voyeuristic. A major presence in the film is Judith Heumann, who was a counselor at Camp Jened and went on to become the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the US Department of State under the Clinton and Obama administrations. She is fierce and unstoppable. She once sued the New York City Board of Education, and also founded a civil rights organization called Disabled in Action.

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After watching this film, Carlos Ríos Espinosa — who works as a senior researcher with the Disability Rights Division of Human Rights Watch — wrote a blog post saying, “The film made me realize the importance of building spaces for people with disabilities to organize. We need a strong community of people with disabilities who both embrace themselves and are ready to fight for our place in society, to make our voices heard and respected.” The work of these activists has had a ripple effect in other parts of the world, and that makes the film even more relevant to international audiences.

The ADA served as a model for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which was adopted in 2006. India ratified this convention in 2007, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPDA) came into force in India in 2016. The protections and entitlements mandated by this legislation were recently threatened by the Government of India itself when the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) released a notification titled ‘Decriminalisation of Minor Offences For Improving Business Sentiment And Unclogging Court Processes — Amendment in RPwD Act, 2016.’

This proposal to amend the RPDA, circulated in June 2020, came as a shock to disability rights activists in India. Though this law is far from perfect, it is a significant improvement over the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. It seemed ridiculous that the government wanted to reverse the gains that have been made, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, under the garb of promoting economic revival for the corporate sector. Moreover, the amendments were sought to be made without any substantial consultation from the stakeholders in this context.

With social distancing guidelines being strictly enforced all over India, it was impossible to occupy the streets and organize the kind of protests shown in Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. However, various Indian disability rights activists including Dr. Satendra Singh, Shampa Sengupta, Vaishnavi Jayakumar, Abhishek Anicca, Nipun Malhotra, Amba Salelkar, Muralidharan Vishwanath, Shivangi Agrawal and many others articulated their dissent through news reports, columns, online campaigns and social media outreach to build support for their demand to scrap the proposal.

Their efforts bore fruit when the MSJE’s Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities published a statement announcing that the proposed amendment had been tossed out. This might appear to be a small victory against ableism but it is an important one. Activists do not give up easily, and they will rise up every time someone threatens to take away what is rightfully theirs.

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