Carlos Rios, on the right and making a funny face, with his buddies at Camp Harmon in 1975.

© 1975 Private

When I was 4 months old, I got polio, and since then I’ve been a wheelchair user. When I was 10, in 1975, my parents found a summer camp for children with disabilities in California and decided it would be a good experience for me.

Summer camp showed me there was a wider world outside my family and that I was able to navigate it. That summer came back to me when I saw the documentary film Crip Camp, which is slated to start streaming on Netflix on March 25 and which is also featured in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

The film traces the birth of the US disability rights movement to a unique summer camp, Camp Jened, managed by people with disabilities like Judy Heumann and members of the ‘60s countercultural movement. Camp Jened provided a space for self-discovery for many teenagers and young adults with disabilities – a place where they could share common concerns and stories about living with a disability in a predominantly able-bodied world.

Above all, they learned how to love themselves and be proud.

It was in part through this space that a group of Americans with disabilities decided to advocate for their rights, putting political pressure on state and federal authorities. Eventually, this movement led to the passage of the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

This legislation influenced movements worldwide and inspired many of the main principles in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006. Hundreds of people with disabilities from many countries were key in drafting this treaty, in the spirit of the movement’s motto: “Nothing about us without us.”  

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. This is not easy, as Crip Camp shows.

Governments and civil society need to promote political spaces for people with disabilities for them to build self-awareness and empowerment. My experience in summer camp in 1975 lasted only two weeks – I wished I had more spaces like that throughout my life. Generations of people with disabilities around the world will surely profit from looking at this US experience.