Camp Joan Mier was a camp for children with disabilities. It was located in the hills of Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean. For ten days every Summer, from age ten to eighteen, I was a camper there. It was in many ways the highlight of my year. I did a Google search on the name because I wanted to make sure I spelled it correctly for an upcoming disability parable. I found some sad news. Camp Joan Mier, my Summer camp, has closed. You can read about the closing here.
I confess that, after the sadness of realizing Camp Joan Mier had closed, I was a little annoyed by the remark in the above article attributed to Steven Rosenthal. He described Camp Joan Mier as “a great place for disabled children to learn how to tie their shoes and make their beds”. Why did this bother me? I’m sure he intended no harm. Perhaps something I ate for breakfast has made me more irritable than normal. For the record, however, let me point out a few things. First of all I doubt any child learned how to tie his or her shoes at Camp Joan Mier. We all knew how to tie our shoes before going to camp. The minimum age for a camper, as I remember, was ten. If the implication is that children who live with disabilities need a special place to learn how to tie their shoes, that’s at best misleading. There may have been some children with disabilities which prevented from or made it very difficult for them to able to tie their own shoes. Even so these challenges would have been solved long before coming to camp. The same goes for making our beds. Bed making was more strictly enforced at camp than at home (at least for me), but this was a matter of discipline, not learning. We all knew how to make our beds before going to camp.
Rosenthal’s remark, whether intended or not, points to a difference in perspective, the difference between viewing a disability from the outside as opposed to the inside. From the outside a disability is seen as a monster. It robs one of normality. The focus falls on giving back as much of normal as is possible. People are even seen as disabilities rather than as people. From the outside it looks like I can’t tie my shoes. Shoe tying is part of normal life. If I can only learn how to tie my shoes, I’ll be that much closer to normal. From the inside, I’m already normal (or at least as normal as I’m ever going to be). I don’t spend much time thinking about shoe laces. Tying my shoes may be difficult. It may be a big nuisance. It’s not a part of who I am.
I don’t want to end on a complaint. Though I’m a few years late, I’d like to give Camp Joan Mier a more proper eulogy by expressing my thanks. Thank you for being a huge part of my growing up years. Thank you for making so many friendships possible. Thank you to all of the staff and counselors who gave far more than was required. Many of you kept in touch even after the Summer ended. Your love and patience were tremendous gifts. Thank you for introducing me to rock n roll, days at the beach, sand crabs, star fish, rattle snakes, camp life, arts and crafts, swimming contests and a host of beautiful people. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to sing in a band. Thank you for providing some magnificent adventures and many memories. Thank you for being there as I chartered the very difficult waters of being a teen. Thank you for a cabin overlooking the ocean. Thanks to all who gave their support through donations or taxes. Many lives were enriched by your mission. We’re all a bit poorer now that you’re gone.