How Adult Camp Transformed My Relationship to Friendship.

Image descrption: five women sit around a square fire pit toasting marshmallows. Photo by Madison Short for APW.

Last summer, I went back to camp. It had been almost twenty years since I rounded that last hairpin turn with my parents to sleep-away camp; this time, I was standing at the Kiss and Ride pickup with fifty other women, waiting on our bus to take us up the mountain. I recognized our fearless leaders from their photos on the website — bubbly, red-headed Manya on the phone, trying to figure out where the heck the bus was; ethereal and friendly Leah, the camp witch; polished and serious Rachel and several others.

Almost an hour passed — and then a yellow school bus rounded the corner of the Kiss and Ride. A vibrant woman with long, red nails cranked open the door and told us to hurry up! As we were loading suitcases and campers on board the bus, she proceeded to regale us with the information that our original bus had disappeared with its bus driver — the company thought he had stolen it! I was thankful, at least, that hadn’t happened while we were on the bus. And with that, we were off, and I was left to my musings.

This was a huge feminist conference I was attending — 100 women and non-binary people in the woods for a weekend. I hadn’t been away from my partner, my comfy bed, and definitely not away from functional cell-phone service since I’d gone to camp as a high schooler. What was ahead of me was similar to the professional conferences and retreats I’d attended over the last few years, minus the requirements: I didn’t have to attend anything that didn’t call to me, and I was allowed plenty of freedom just to rest. And I would need that, as an East Coast resident spending a weekend on the West Coast, thanks to jet lag. I was up with the sun every day, but it meant that I had to crawl in bed and sleep long before any of my cabinmates did. This camp was entirely different in a few ways — besides being all women and non-binary people — there was even a group moon howl led by our camp witch to close out the last night.

It made a huge impact for me — and, I learned later, for other disabled people in the group — that the first thing I did when I learned about this opportunity was ask about accessibility, specifically requesting interpreters. My seemingly simple ask had created space for other disabled folks to feel comfortable asking for accommodations, too. We had a cabin that was fully accessible for mobility disabilities, an extra fridge for people with dietary restrictions, a pumping room for the new mothers in the group, and more. I think my willingness to tackle that hurdle head-on also helped people feel more confident talking to me about disability — and at all. At least they had something to go on.

When we finally disembarked, we discovered another giant hill — this one literal — we had to climb to get to registration. Up the hill we went, everyone else talking the whole way. I was in my own little world, trying to avoid tripping on a rock or my own feet, thanks to the dyspraxia that I deal with. When we finally arrived at the check-in, with no injuries sustained, I was immediately recognized, and the interpreter (the first one of three for the weekend) was introduced to me. I can’t even imagine what kind of screening the camp had gone through to find the interpreters — because all three were perfect for this event: They were outdoorsy, fun, kind, feminist, and they clearly supported my rights as a Deaf person to be the expert on my community and language in this setting. This would set the stage for friendships that would blossom beyond the weekend, not in spite of my disability, but because my activism opened up dialogue and shared opportunities to support each other.

The community that came together for this camp had existed previously in a virtual medium — namely, online in the comments section of a wedding and relationships website. For me, writing back and forth in comments and on message boards tends to allow me to be more authentically myself — and authentically exist as a disabled person — because writing is a medium that I do well. This translated in a smooth way to real-life interactions because all of my access needs were already addressed in my writings, and the people who had conversed with me there felt more comfortable asking direct questions. After camp, this translated to a group and online community where I could freely talk about accessibility and ableism — — and even when many of the members of the group had never even heard the terms or encountered the barriers, they believed me, uplifted me, and took my message to heart.

Most impactful for me was meeting other disabled people at this camp. While I have a vast network of disabled friends online, being in physical space with folks who share some of my experience was powerful. These people didn’t live locally to me, but just by being openly and unapologetically disabled, they opened the channels for us to connect more deeply when we went home. They accepted me and my disabilities just the way I was — because that was the way they got to know me. This was in contrast to the many friends I had growing up, who knew me as a disabled person, who — because of internalized ableism — never spoke up about things I actually needed to access the world. I didn’t want to inconvenience my friends back then, so they had no idea. It wasn’t until I finally began learning about ableism, overcoming my own internalized viewpoint, that I started speaking up and telling my friends what I needed. It became clear that these friends weren’t willing to accomodate me in any way, and they actually began to view me as high-maintenance and they slowly, one by one, began to drop out of my life. This was incredibly damaging for me, as friendship became something that I couldn’t trust until a person had seen me at various points in my disability and understood — — as much as any abled person could — — what that meant. It made my relationships feel transitional and transactional.

My new and recent friendships were built around my disability — people were already aware that I was deaf. They knew that we had to think about things like lighting, sound, and seating when we went out to eat together. And if they didn’t, I was more comfortable bringing it up myself because I already had a barometer measure of how they would treat my access needs, as I was always up front about my disability from the beginning of any relationship. They actively listened when I would take a deep breath to talk about how something that came up in conversation impacted the disability community — like the dockless scooters all over the city or straw bans or impassioned pleas for everyone to bring their own cup to save the planet.

These new friends from camp became an extension of my support system. When we all returned home, my fellow campers made an effort to make social media accessible for me by including image descriptions and using various caption formats on videos. They would ask me what I needed to make meet-ups more accessible, and then put those things into place for me — — always considering that I wasn’t the only disabled person that might want to be a part of their events. They would find a space with accessible doors, elevators, low tables, and good lighting. They would welcome my service animal every time — and ignore him even though he was so cute they wanted to play with and pet him. All of these things, once they became aware of them, seemed relatively simple to enact, and it made all the difference for me.

Since this experience, I have stepped fully into standing up for myself where my access needs are concerned, and I’ve become much more outspoken about general things that can be done by all people to improve accessibility in our spaces, cities, restaurants, and businesses. Because I realized how impactful speaking up was for me, I pushed the studio where I volunteered to allow me to bring my service dog when I worked there. I convinced — with my partner’s help — a yoga studio that didn’t believe in or allow their yoga teachers to use accessibility devices like microphones to at least allow me to use one. I also noticed that my friends were taking these lessons to heart — and that made me even more willing and able to start reaching out to various event planners and ask about accessibility (although; it would sure help if more people believed in putting accessibility information somewhere easy to find on their websites!). This particular camp, when they updated their website for this year’s event added the accessibility information — including interpreters — in their FAQ page. All of this and the community I have built has helped me step more fully into who I am as an activist — and I am excited to keep going.