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An unflinching look at an activist
by Anne Finger
Anne Finger is the Poetry/Fiction editor of Ragged Edge magazine.
This past summer, as part of its P.O.V. series, public television aired Walter Brock's documentary about the life of disabled activist Arthur Campbell, a well-crafted and forthright piece that brought the message of disability rights to millions of Americans. In the process, the film "If I Can't Do It" also examined the complex roles that class, family and religion can play in our lives.
One of the strongest moments in the film comes early on, when filmmaker Walter Brock recalls his first meeting with Arthur. Sent to interview someone only described to him as a "disability rights activist," Brock wasn't prepared for Arthur--a chair user whose cerebral palsy includes speech impairment. Brock confesses that his first thought was: why doesn't someone do this guy a favor and put him out of his misery? Now, looking back on that reaction, he wonders out loud in the film where such prejudice on his part came from.
Campbell was born into a working-class family in Kentucky's Appalachian mountains. His mother went into premature labor with a breech presentation. After twenty-four hours of unsuccessful attempts to complete the delivery, the coal company doctor tried to leave, leaving both mother and infant to die; Arthur's father prevented him from doing so ("You walk out of here and you're a dead man,"), and eventually Arthur was born.
One thing that sets this film apart is its acute attention to the interactions within the Campbell family. The mutual love of Arthur and his parents and sisters comes across clearly. But there's also no doubt that he suffered enormously within the family--he was often afraid, for instance, to leave his room when his father was around. A hardworking and hard-drinking man, Arthur's father's own experience with work injuries didn't afford him greater empathy with his son but led him to conclude that Arthur just wasn't trying hard enough. Arthur's mother resisted the advice of professionals to institutionalize him, but at the same time he grew up isolated and uneducated, illiterate until he was in his late teens.
Told that a faith healer at a local Pentecostal Church could heal Arthur, his mother tortured herself that her lack of faith was at fault when the promised cure did not materialize. Yet religion also played a positive role in Arthur's life: it was a local Jehovah's Witness minister who finally taught Arthur to read, and his involvement with that group that finally brought him into contact with the wider world.
In his mid-30s Arthur went on a hunger strike to get out of his parents home, a move that eventually led him to living independently in an apartment. Not long after, Arthur became involved with ADAPT. The scenes of ADAPT actions are wonderful to see: an inaccessible Denver McDonald's surrounded by protesters, men in three-piece suits cavalierly crawling over them to get their daily dose of fat and cholesterol; buses blocked by people using wheelchairs; ADAPT members crawling up the steps of the Capitol in support of the ADA. Arthur becomes a vocal and visible spokesperson for disability rights in Louisville, and is present at the signing of the ADA.
He then takes a state job. If the documentary can be faulted for anything, it is that it gets a little muddy here: it's unclear what Arthur's role was meant to be for the state. He at first hires one of his sisters to work for him, but she soon quits, and the job--which doesn't prove long-lasting--results in his alienation both from the sister who had been his strongest ally within the family and from ADAPT.
What the film doesn't flinch at is Arthur's estrangement at the end of the movie. Disability stories tend to follow an upbeat trajectory, whether that trajectory is crip finds cure and lives happily ever after or, more recently, crip finds the disability rights movement and lives happily ever after.
Arthur's life has times of both triumph and despair, and its to the credit of the film's maker that he looks at both full on. Editor's note: "If I Can't Do It" can be purchased for personal viewing for $29.95 (plus $9 shipping) from Fanlight Productions, 4196 Washington St., Suite 2, Boston, MA 02131 (800-937-4113) (website: www.fanlight.com)
MiCASA on video
Write to: PDA, 5620 Business Ave., Suite B, Cicero, N Y 13039 or call 1-800-543-2119 (website: http://www.PDAssoc.com). Produced by Irene Ward and Associates, the video shows Mike explaining, the Medicaid Com-munity Attendant Services Act (H.R.2020) in a speech before The Arc of Ohio. It includes questions and answers.
504 sit-in anniversary materials
The materials are available in a variety of alternative formats. To order call Julie Drucker at DREDF (510) 644-2555 (or leave a voice mail on extension 306) Fax your request to (510) 841-8645 or email Julie at 504annivdredf.org.
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