Perhaps you caught the Academy Awards on a Sunday last month, when glass ceilings crumbled amidst necessary and deserved representation of diverse artists. Nine of 20 acting nominees were BIPOC performers. The first female of color won an Oscar for directing. The first Black stylists won for best makeup and hairstyling. It’s no endpoint, but it’s progress.
Yet for one diverse community, a hopeful held breath morphed into a sigh of disappointment.
Did you catch it? Maybe not. Perhaps you were rapt by all of the talk of “diversity” and humanitarian awards, or drawn in by the heartfelt calls to action to prevent gun violence and honor art teachers, that you didn’t notice when three sequined wheelchair users popped up at a table at the edge of the stage.
I noticed it. And so did peeps like me: PWDs, crips, disabled folks.
You see, we were all holding our breaths to see whether “Crip Camp,” – a documentary film by James (Jim) LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham – would win Oscar recognition.
In case you also missed the film itself (available on Netflix), it chronicles a group of summer campers with disabilities who became instrumental in the disability rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s.
Oh wait, rewind…maybe you didn’t realize there was a disability rights movement. (You aren’t the only one, hence the movie.) It is the latest-won and most intersectional of the civil rights movements. Curb cuts, video captions, individualized education programs, accessible parking, automatic doors, job protections. The ripple effects of the disability rights movement impact all of our lives, even when we don’t notice them.
But, perhaps you or your family members are not disabled (at least, at this moment), so you don’t really know much about disability history and culture, or the constant battles that the disability community wages in convincing industries to make things more accessible – including the entertainment industry. From theatres to film festivals, artist housing to sets and sound stages, communication processes to simply being included in industry equity, diversity, and inclusion discussions, we endure a constant fight to literally get in the door.
Maybe you were not aware that “Crip Camp” was the first major contemporary film made by disabled artists about disability justice to get recognition from entities like Sundance, producers like the Obamas, and from the Academy. This film was huge for us. After its release, we felt seen, heard, validated for the first time in, well, maybe ever.
We watched proudly as accomplished artists with disabilities showed up – conspicuously – on the red carpet, with a service dog as plus-1. And we hoped and prayed that maybe – just maybe – our community would finally be recognized, and have our collective story of disenfranchisement and resilience validated as a part of the vital human narrative.
And then an octopus took it. (Mind you, we know it’s not the octopus’ fault. Hell, that octopus was disabled, too.)
I do not think it was an intentional slight. Sadly, I think it’s worse: “Crip Camp’s” significance did not even register on most voters’ radars. Amidst the thrall of man-and-octopus existentialism, they failed to clock the monumental importance of “Crip Camp” as a bold cinematic work of the untold history and culture of a community accustomed to being put on the back burner.
The film was Hollywood’s easy-access opportunity via a deserving film to make a statement against the insidious reality of disability dehumanization that still goes largely unchallenged – even among liberal, progressive arts and entertainment folks. It was a perfect chance to demonstrate wholly inclusive diversity alongside the other wins of the night – proudly and indelibly.
And…ahem (throat clear)…they blew it.
Amidst the sting, we PWDs tried to focus on the wins: new captioning services provided this year; the first ramp up to the award stage; and Marlee Matlin presenting with ASL. (Never mind the lack of information about how to access the captioning services, or the walking winners avoiding the ramp like the plague, or the cameras cutting away from Matlin so that we could only hear the interpreter speaking her words rather than seeing her communicate them. For that matter, why wasn’t ASL interpretation included throughout the entire broadcast? Sigh.)
Still, it’s progress, we’ll take it. I mean, we have to. What’s the alternative?
And now we hold our breath again, waiting to see if the Academy reverts to ableist “business as usual” next year. We fear we will continue to witness nondisabled artists win award after award for telling the extraordinary stories of Deaf and disabled humans while not having us – the authentic Deaf and disabled people – represented substantially in the mix. We wonder if they will ever be comfortable with us, or expand their definition of “diversity” beyond a narrow physical or cognitive mold. We wonder whether they will ever accept the reality that we – the cripples – are actually worth being in the room with them.
We will celebrate “Crip Camp” ourselves as we continue battling for equitable health care, gainful and meaningful employment, independent and community living, and…respect. And we will work each day, each year to convince the self-dubbed “creatives” and the wider world that the ramps, the captioning, the ASL, the audio description – the REPRESENTATION – matters, and not just as feel-good window dressing that sells advertiser stock.
Forging past the pity and discrimination, we will gracefully receive the crumbs we are offered, even as we shake our heads at the gargantuan cakes we are denied.
And maybe someday we will finally get someone on that stage who represents us authentically.
Regan Linton is an actor, director and artistic director of the award-winning disability-affirmative Phamaly Theatre Company in Denver. She is co-director of “(im)perfect,” a film in development that chronicles the making of the musical “Chicago” by disabled theater artists. She lives with a disability, a T-4 complete spinal cord injury and chest-down paralysis.
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