keyboard with handicap sign for return key

What the tech industry can learn from “Crip Camp”

21 Apr 2020

Judith “Judy” Heumann, contracted Polio as a child in 1949 which left her unable to walk. When she was old enough to go to school, the principal of the public school denied her entry–citing that she was a fire hazard–because she used a wheelchair. She also could not go to the movies, was asked to leave restaurants and could barely get across the street to meet her friends. As a college graduate, she was (initially) denied a teaching license because she couldn’t walk.  

Thankfully, many of the obstacles she faced no longer exist, but the fight to gain civil rights for folks with disabilities was hard fought. Heumann was a leader in the campaign to have the Section 504 Rehabilitation Act of 1973 signed and implemented and to have the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 passed. Heumann’s story, and the story of other people with disabilities’ fight for civil rights is explored in James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s documentary, Crip Camp, available on Netflix. There are many lessons to be learned in this film, especially for those of us working in web accessibility.

The Rehabilitation Act, which was initially vetoed in 1972 by President Nixon, was said to be too expensive. William Ronan of the New York City Transit Authority agreed with Nixon, saying, “It would just be impossible, in terms of it’s financial cost, to put in elevators and ramps in all these [subway and transportation] stations…The problem here is, as with all of this question, how many people would really be served by it?”

What Mr. Ronan didn’t understand back in the early 1970s was that hundreds of thousands would have been served by the accessible upgrades to the NYC transportation system, because accessibility benefits everyone. Even after almost 50 years, there are STILL services and spaces that are not fully accessible, including websites and other electronic systems that many of us rely on.

Heumann is still a prominent disability advocate and recently talked about her book on the Daily Show With Trevor Noah (video below). She pointed out one of the biggest misconceptions about accessibility: “[In the D.C. Metro] some of the most frequent users of the elevators are men and women who have babies in baby carriages. So, I think we really need to also look at the kinds of accommodations that theoretically have been made for disabled people [and how they] actually benefit so many other people.”

Courtesy of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah via YouTube – Closed Captioning Available

Just as schools, subways, public buildings and restrooms were not originally built with accessibility in mind, websites were/are not built with equitable infrastructure. And just as updating the NYC Transit system took money, time and work, so will shifting the web towards full accessibility. We can’t make folks who NEED better access fight for it again, it’s our job to build and produce with accessible standards– and you will save time and money by avoiding a lawsuit.