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'Crip Camp': Where disability rights stand 30 years after these kids fought for recognition and changed the world

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Updated 3:08 AM ET, Sun July 26, 2020

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(CNN) Today it would be unthinkable to nickname a summer getaway for children with disabilities "Crip Camp."

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Yet that was the nickname given to Camp Jened, a summer camp for children, teens and adults with disabilities that operated in the Catskill Mountains of New York from 1951 to 1977. The camp is the subject of a documentary on the origins of the disability rights movement released earlier this year.
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At 'Crip Camp,' kids were made to feel as if they were worthy, intellegent and able.
At 'Crip Camp,' kids were made to feel as if they were worthy, intellegent and able.
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Before Americans began to see the falsehoods and dangers of such stereotypes, it was common to use terms like gimp, deformed, imbecile, freak, retarded and cripple to describe a person with a disability.
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"Today that's like the 'N' word, but that was what you were called in those days. You were seen as crippled and perceived not able to take care of yourself or accomplish things," said retired Rep. Tony Coelho, who has lived with epilepsy since an accident at age 16.
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A California Democrat, Coelho is an author of the ground-breaking Americans with Disabilities Act, which turns 30 on Sunday. The act outlaws discrimination in employment based on physical or mental disability and requires accessibility to buildings and public and private transportation.
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Coelho recalled the emotional March day in 1990 when 60 protesters, including 8-year-old Jennifer Keelan, left their wheelchairs to crawl up the 83 steps of the US Capitol unassisted, arriving at the top bloody and bruised but undeterred from their goal of persuading Congress to pass the defining legislation.
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"The young people getting out of their wheelchairs, not able to use their lower extremities, but still crawling up those marble steps ... " said Coelho with obvious emotion.
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"All of a sudden it was visual: The Capitol steps are not inclusive for people in wheelchairs and for people with disabilities. I knew this was going to really change things. We passed the bill in the House by a big margin."
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Among those protesters were a number of former "Crip" campers. Most spent their summers there during the protests of the late 1960's and early 1970's, when the camp counselors, mostly college students, were
heavily influenced by hippie counterculture.
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Strict rules and the typical structure of camp life were discarded and "Crip Camp" became a place to experiment with drugs, sex, independence and grand ideas for change.
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In another vintage color snapshot at "Crip Camp," Cary Walker squints at the camera with a bemused look.  Behind him, a couple sitting in wheelchairs share a romantic embrace.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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In another vintage color snapshot at "Crip Camp," Cary Walker squints at the camera with a bemused look. Behind him, a couple sitting in wheelchairs share a romantic embrace.
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"If I have to feel thankful about an accessible bathroom, when am I ever going to be equal in the community?"  said former camper Judith Huemann (not pictured), who went on to be a leader in the disability rights movement.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"If I have to feel thankful about an accessible bathroom, when am I ever going to be equal in the community?" said former camper Judith Huemann (not pictured), who went on to be a leader in the disability rights movement.
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Typical camp fun: These three campers are wearing face paint and outlandish homemade costumes, including pointy party hats made out of aluminum foil and construction paper.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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Typical camp fun: These three campers are wearing face paint and outlandish homemade costumes, including pointy party hats made out of aluminum foil and construction paper.
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August 1968: Cheerful campers gathered in the field, some in wheelchairs, others sitting on the lawn. Being around other kids with disabilities was a relief for many of the campers. "I wanted to be part of the world but I didn't see anyone like me in it," said former camper Jimmy Lebrecht (not pictured).
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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August 1968: Cheerful campers gathered in the field, some in wheelchairs, others sitting on the lawn. Being around other kids with disabilities was a relief for many of the campers. "I wanted to be part of the world but I didn't see anyone like me in it," said former camper Jimmy Lebrecht (not pictured).
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September 1967: These girls are rocking late 1960s fashion including bright colors, polka dots, and headbands, all part of the self-expression encouraged at "Crip Camp."
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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September 1967: These girls are rocking late 1960s fashion including bright colors, polka dots, and headbands, all part of the self-expression encouraged at "Crip Camp."
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"I want to see a feisty group of disabled people around the world," said camper Judith Heumann (not pictured). "If you don't respect yourself and if you don't demand what you believe in for yourself, you're not going to get it."
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"I want to see a feisty group of disabled people around the world," said camper Judith Heumann (not pictured). "If you don't respect yourself and if you don't demand what you believe in for yourself, you're not going to get it."
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"Crip Camp" 1968: At Camp Jened in the Catskills, youngsters with disabilities learned to be self-sufficient and proud. Some campers went on to found the disability rights movement that helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"Crip Camp" 1968: At Camp Jened in the Catskills, youngsters with disabilities learned to be self-sufficient and proud. Some campers went on to found the disability rights movement that helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
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"It was a utopia *2e when we were there, there was no outside world," says camper Denise Sherer Jacobson, smiling at the camera on the far left. Jacobson became a writer and disability educator.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"It was a utopia β€” when we were there, there was no outside world," says camper Denise Sherer Jacobson, smiling at the camera on the far left. Jacobson became a writer and disability educator.
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"The ADA was a wonderful achievement. But it was only the tip of the iceberg. You can pass a law but until you can change society's attitudes, that law won't mean much," says Denise Jacobson.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"The ADA was a wonderful achievement. But it was only the tip of the iceberg. You can pass a law but until you can change society's attitudes, that law won't mean much," says Denise Jacobson.
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At "Crip Camp," teenaged campers were encouraged to express their individuality and advocate for themselves. For many, it was the first time they had ever felt valued.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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At "Crip Camp," teenaged campers were encouraged to express their individuality and advocate for themselves. For many, it was the first time they had ever felt valued.
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Having fun was encouraged, and for many the experience was enlightening. "What we saw at that camp was that our lives could be better. The fact of the matter is that you don't have anything to strive for if you don't know that it exists," said camper Jimmy Lebrecht (not pictured).
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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Having fun was encouraged, and for many the experience was enlightening. "What we saw at that camp was that our lives could be better. The fact of the matter is that you don't have anything to strive for if you don't know that it exists," said camper Jimmy Lebrecht (not pictured).
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Camper Terri Feinstein has her arms around counselor Steve Hofmann in his wheelchair. Many of the counselors from "Crip Camp" became part of the disability rights movement.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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Camper Terri Feinstein has her arms around counselor Steve Hofmann in his wheelchair. Many of the counselors from "Crip Camp" became part of the disability rights movement.
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In another vintage color snapshot at "Crip Camp," Cary Walker squints at the camera with a bemused look.  Behind him, a couple sitting in wheelchairs share a romantic embrace.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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In another vintage color snapshot at "Crip Camp," Cary Walker squints at the camera with a bemused look. Behind him, a couple sitting in wheelchairs share a romantic embrace.
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"If I have to feel thankful about an accessible bathroom, when am I ever going to be equal in the community?"  said former camper Judith Huemann (not pictured), who went on to be a leader in the disability rights movement.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"If I have to feel thankful about an accessible bathroom, when am I ever going to be equal in the community?" said former camper Judith Huemann (not pictured), who went on to be a leader in the disability rights movement.
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Typical camp fun: These three campers are wearing face paint and outlandish homemade costumes, including pointy party hats made out of aluminum foil and construction paper.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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Typical camp fun: These three campers are wearing face paint and outlandish homemade costumes, including pointy party hats made out of aluminum foil and construction paper.
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August 1968: Cheerful campers gathered in the field, some in wheelchairs, others sitting on the lawn. Being around other kids with disabilities was a relief for many of the campers. "I wanted to be part of the world but I didn't see anyone like me in it," said former camper Jimmy Lebrecht (not pictured).
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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August 1968: Cheerful campers gathered in the field, some in wheelchairs, others sitting on the lawn. Being around other kids with disabilities was a relief for many of the campers. "I wanted to be part of the world but I didn't see anyone like me in it," said former camper Jimmy Lebrecht (not pictured).
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September 1967: These girls are rocking late 1960s fashion including bright colors, polka dots, and headbands, all part of the self-expression encouraged at "Crip Camp."
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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September 1967: These girls are rocking late 1960s fashion including bright colors, polka dots, and headbands, all part of the self-expression encouraged at "Crip Camp."
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"I want to see a feisty group of disabled people around the world," said camper Judith Heumann (not pictured). "If you don't respect yourself and if you don't demand what you believe in for yourself, you're not going to get it."
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"I want to see a feisty group of disabled people around the world," said camper Judith Heumann (not pictured). "If you don't respect yourself and if you don't demand what you believe in for yourself, you're not going to get it."
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"Crip Camp" 1968: At Camp Jened in the Catskills, youngsters with disabilities learned to be self-sufficient and proud. Some campers went on to found the disability rights movement that helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"Crip Camp" 1968: At Camp Jened in the Catskills, youngsters with disabilities learned to be self-sufficient and proud. Some campers went on to found the disability rights movement that helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
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"It was a utopia jC‘ when we were there, there was no outside world," says camper Denise Sherer Jacobson, smiling at the camera on the far left. Jacobson became a writer and disability educator.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"It was a utopia β€” when we were there, there was no outside world," says camper Denise Sherer Jacobson, smiling at the camera on the far left. Jacobson became a writer and disability educator.
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"The ADA was a wonderful achievement. But it was only the tip of the iceberg. You can pass a law but until you can change society's attitudes, that law won't mean much," says Denise Jacobson.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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"The ADA was a wonderful achievement. But it was only the tip of the iceberg. You can pass a law but until you can change society's attitudes, that law won't mean much," says Denise Jacobson.
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At "Crip Camp," teenaged campers were encouraged to express their individuality and advocate for themselves. For many, it was the first time they had ever felt valued.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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At "Crip Camp," teenaged campers were encouraged to express their individuality and advocate for themselves. For many, it was the first time they had ever felt valued.
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Having fun was encouraged, and for many the experience was enlightening. "What we saw at that camp was that our lives could be better. The fact of the matter is that you don't have anything to strive for if you don't know that it exists," said camper Jimmy Lebrecht (not pictured).
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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Having fun was encouraged, and for many the experience was enlightening. "What we saw at that camp was that our lives could be better. The fact of the matter is that you don't have anything to strive for if you don't know that it exists," said camper Jimmy Lebrecht (not pictured).
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Camper Terri Feinstein has her arms around counselor Steve Hofmann in his wheelchair. Many of the counselors from "Crip Camp" became part of the disability rights movement.
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Photos: 'Crip Camp': A transformative experience for youngsters with disabilities
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Camper Terri Feinstein has her arms around counselor Steve Hofmann in his wheelchair. Many of the counselors from "Crip Camp" became part of the disability rights movement.
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13 Crip Camp Netflix
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For young people who were used to the world seeing them as incapable and unworthy, the experience was transformative.
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"Even when we were that young, we helped empower each other. It was allowing us to recognize that the status quo is not what it needed to be," said former camper Judith "Judy" Heumann, who had polio as a child and uses a wheelchair.
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Heumann is one of the starring characters in "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution," which captured acclaim at the Sundance Festival and was released in March on Netflix. The film was produced by Higher Ground Productions, the company founded by former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama
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Raw and powerful, shocking and inspiring, the documentary follows Heumann and other former campers as they become nationally visible activists during the 1970s and into the 1980s.
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"Crip Camp is both a gripping look at the history of the disability rights movement and a timely call to action, urging us to explore our own duty to fight for the dignity of all people," Obama said in a statement.
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Just out of college in 1969, Heumann applied for a teaching license but was told she was a fire hazard. She sued for discrimination and won. In 1970, she began a disability rights group to advocate for the independent living movement.
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Judy Heumann speaks out for disability rights.
Judy Heumann speaks out for disability rights.
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In 1977, she and more than 100 disabled activists β€” including several former Crip Camp alumni β€” staged a 28-day sit-in at a San Francisco federal building in a bid to influence regulations that were defining the rights of people with disabilities. The dramatic and successful event captured the attention of the nation and set the stage for the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
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"We demonstrated to the entire nation that disabled people could take control over our own lives and take leadership in the struggle for equality," Heumann said.
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The fight continues

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Despite the hard-won advances of the last 30 years under the ADA, there are still major hurdles facing the 61 million Americans who have hearing, sight, mobility or cognitive challenges.
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"The anniversary is really great; it's important," Coelho said. "We've made a lot of progress, but we need to do more.
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Health care is a major issue for the community. "Adults with disabilities are three times more likely to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities," according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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During the coronavirus pandemic, those disparities have become pronounced, with many states choosing to triage people with disabilities, Coelho said, putting them last on lists for ventilators and other lifesaving measures.
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"If you have a disability, they say you have less quality of life years than if you don't have a disability," he said. "Consequently, if there's a ventilator, it should go to the person who has a better quality of life or life expectancy.
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"We're aggressively working to change it and we'll get there. But can you believe they would actually do that in this day and age?" he said.
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Another issue that has come to critical mass during the pandemic is a lack of web accessibility.
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Some 98% of the top 1 million websites failed guidelines that would make their sites easier to read, navigate or understand, according to the 2020 WebAim Million, an organization that produces a yearly ranking of web accessibility for individuals with disabilities.
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Why would being able to fully navigate a website be such a burning issue? Just think about how you pay bills, shop, find a doctor and make an appointment β€” and especially in the time of Covid-19 β€” order groceries and anything else.
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Because the internet was still an infant at the time the ADA passed, the legislation doesn't directly cover digital accessibility. But it needs to and now, advocates say.
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"There have been lawsuits filed β€” in 2019 over 2,000 were filed and one of them got all the way to the Supreme Court and won," Coelho said. "Now the issue is how do we get legislation as opposed to a court decision?"
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Redesigning a website to fix accessibility issues can be a huge investment, so companies have sprung up that retrofit current designs. Fixes might include the ability to increase volume and font size, adjust contrast, caption pictures and streamline links, which disability advocates say often benefit the rest of us with fading hearing and eyesight as well.
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"What people don't realize is that an accommodation made for someone with a disability actually becomes a convenience for people without the disability," Coelho said, pointing to an example in the physical world.
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"Take curb cuts on streets in neighborhoods," he said. "They help bicyclists cross the street as much as they assist those in wheelchairs."
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Apple is celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day with a host of apps and features
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If companies β€” and the nation β€” could take an inclusive attitude and realize they are not just helping those with disabilities, but everyone, the battle for equal rights for people with disabilities would be won, advocates say.
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Until then, people with disabilities will continue to speak out proudly, demanding their full rights as American citizens, just as those kids did so many years ago in "Crip Camp."
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"I thank God for my epilepsy because it's made me a stronger, better person, but a lot of us in the community feel that way," Coelho says. "We don't feel like we're handicapped. We feel like we got something that makes us better and stronger, and we're going to be out there fighting."
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DMU Timestamp: July 23, 2020 19:52

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