Shattering stereotypes; discussion of disability hierarchy


One thing I remember about the camps I went to when I was young, not so much Oakhurst, but at Carolla and its Saturday rec program, the Carollians, there was this hierarchy of disability. In other words, the more disabled you were, the more unacceptable you were. Do you know what I'm talking about?


Yes. You know, it's interesting. You find similar things with--now I guess it's called people of color--but you find in many cultures that it's still like the lighter-skinned people where you have basically a brown people but on one side of the scale they're

white, and on the other end of the scale they're black. There is a hierarchy based on color. The same thing is true of disability, based on the severity and type of disability.

There would be a lot of discussions about that: the post-polios versus the people with cerebral palsy, and the ambulatory versus the non-ambulatory. It was broken down--it really--and there were some people that were sort of difficult to fit into--and that was largely, I thought, a self-imposed kind of thing, and a totally natural human thing. What we human beings do is whenever we get a chance and we have a group is that we start classifying everybody. It seems to be--it doesn't matter what culture you come from, what gender you are, it's what we tend to do.

You look at the program "Survivor" and you'll see that very dramatically. There's got to be, like a food chain, and somebody's got to be at the top of the food chain, and somebody's got to be at the bottom of the food chain.


Now, I remember it being less prevalent at Camp Jened. That somehow the lines blurred so that the hierarchy wasn't as defined as it was elsewhere. Do you have any thoughts on why that was?


I think that that was probably, then, whatever we were trying to do, we were doing it right because that was happening. Because by sort of taking away, loosening up--you know, being not so rigid--and trying to develop an environment where people could not just be experiencing the classical kind of camping curriculum and then by hiring right people, I think you break down a lot of stereotypes. Again, these stereotypes, this pecking order, this food chain, however you want to characterize it, was largely self-created. Not totally, but largely.


What do you mean self-created?


I think you put people in a group and they will classify themselves, and they will--look, there will be people at the low end and people at the high end, and I think that all people do this, and I think that what you saw--I mean, what we tried to do was to give people an opportunity--and I don't know if it was conscious, but--was to get out of that. You know, you don't have to look at--you're in an environment with people your own age, and you don't have to classify. Things were going on between the counselors and the campers; there were things going on between the campers and the campers. Those dynamics were set to, like, get beyond the stereotypes. I mean, the non-disabled people had stereotypes in their minds about disabled people when they came there. Hopefully after they had spent a summer there, those stereotypes were shattered, were irrevocably changed.

The same thing had to be happening between campers, who had different kinds of disabilities and there was this tendency to put the more verbal, the post-polios, on one kind of level and then proceed downward as people got more severely disabled, and I say that it's largely self-imposed, not totally self-imposed, because the society does that, too. But kids with disabilities--what we're trying to do is give them the opportunity to reject that. "I won't buy into that. That's a lot of garbage. Don't buy into that."


Where you aware that was going on?


Yes. After about a couple of years into--yes, I was aware. We talked--we used to talk about this--the staff--we used to talk about it in terms of--and there were--I mean, I think that the counselor part came into play more for really being aware of kids that were up there--adults who were, for whatever reason, being left out. There still was room while this other stuff--but there still was room for the traditional kind of camp experience to go on, because some people wanted that; some people needed that. Some people needed that as a vehicle to sort of break out. Or they came for that. That's what they came for.

But the trick was--what we tried to do was even though the camp program was our basic kind of product--we also want to give the opportunity to say, "The hell with that. I want to have a different kind of experience," and be able to have that. And that was a byproduct, again, of the times, of the great social--not only social unrest but social experimentation, and people rejecting labels, people looking at black people and saying, "I refuse to continue to buy into the fact that society has said you're inferior to me because of the color of your skin" and women--the feminist movement--"We refuse to be second-class citizens anymore." In this instance, it was people with disabilities saying--

And even the nomenclature changed. I mean, it used to be--it went from crippled kids to handicapped kids to kids with disabilities. The nomenclature got--you know--but emphasizing getting back to the people. This may sound utopian, but I really--I still, at my advanced age, I still believe it. I still believe that from an evolutionary standpoint, for social evolution, that you can get to the point where these things simply don't matter anymore, where they're incidental.

"You know so-and-so? She's the"--just like you would describe somebody--she's the one with the red hair--"Oh, yeah, I know who she is," kind of thing. It's not a point of classification, it's a point of identification. So you're always dealing with the human being. You're not dealing with the stereotype. You're not dealing with--yes, I mean, you know better than I do. You grew up where somebody would be wheeling you, and someone would be asking them if you were hungry, did you want something. You know, that crap you had to put up with.

Things could change. I think Jened played a role in fostering that idea. And I think--you know, the large part of it, Denise, is the problem did not exist with people with disabilities; the problem existed with people that didn't have disabilities. It was our problem that you guys were having to put up with. So it was important for us to change.

The reason it was such a great experience for the counselors was that it made everyone confront the stereotypes in their lives and learn to live beyond them.


Let me change the tape.

[Tape 2, Side A]

As I was saying, essentially a lot of us saw it as a problem that the nondisabled majority had which needed to be--and I honestly believe the racism and all the rest of this stuff, and I don't want to get tedious, politically correct because I really am so tired of political correctness I could vomit, but--it was our problem, and insofar as you let us get

away with it, it was your problem, and there needed to be, like, a moment in time when this something, this spark started the thing to change. And that's why the Judy Heumanns of the world, the Eunice Fioritos and people like that are so important--and Phyllis Rubenfeld. I believe she has passed away.




And these are very important people who contributed critical things at a critical moment and really changed the face of the world. You look at things in a historic perspective, and there has been tremendous, tremendous change, and the biggest change has been--I believe it's not only the physical environment but also in the acceptance. I think we have a ways to go yet, but I think it's dramatically different than 1963, when I started in disability.

The fact there's even an oral history project on this alone is I think symbolic of the fact that something historic has happened.