On a hot day in March 1990, some sixty protesters organized by Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) hurled themselves out of their wheelchairs, threw aside their crutches, and dragged, pushed, or crawled up the eighty-odd steps of the U.S. Capitol.
The Capitol Crawl was one of the most brilliant acts of political theater in U.S. history. It was both a literal and a symbolic enactment of the inaccessibility of the workings of democracy to people with disabilities, as well as their indefatigable will to win their rights. It showcased both the vulnerability of the body and the power of resistance—indeed, the power of bodies in vulnerability. And it worked. Four months later, President George H.W. Bush signed the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The Capitol Crawl is the climax of the new documentary Crip Camp by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht. The film chronicles the U.S. disability rights movement, from its fetal stage in the mid-1970s at a hippie summer camp for “handicapped” teenagers to its maturity and pinnacle achievement (so far), the passage of the ADA. It’s an organizer’s primer. But watching from my couch, isolated and immobilized by the pandemic lockdown, what struck me most about the film was the salience of the body to social movements
In a crisis characterized by isolation, the most encouraging acts of political resistance are coming from workers endangered by proximity. They show us what every activist or student of social movements understands: bodies in the street—or corporate headquarters or nuclear power plant—play an irreplaceable role in destabilizing the status quo.