This week is the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I believe the act has opened doors for all of us since its inception in 1990; not only the disabled. Even on a small island such as Martha’s Vineyard, our community is becoming “richer” as more doors are opening for everyone. The mainstreaming of the disabled into our society is a gift, as our children not only learn acceptance of differences, but develop compassion, comfort and appreciation for those of varying abilities.
Martha’s Vineyard has a reputation with some as being an “elitist” playground of the rich. I believe this is an unearned criticism by folks that have never been here or just don’t know it well. What I see is a diverse community and a variety of people coming to the island throughout the year to enjoy all that this beautiful resort has to offer. Visitors and “Islanders” of all different ages, abilities, and income levels share this space and (for the most part) manage to get along; and yes, appreciate each other’s differences.
In writing about disabilities and acceptance, I have to mention one of the most well-loved summer institutions on Martha’s Vineyard — Camp Jabberwocky. If you have seen a 4thof July parade on the Island, you will be familiar with them. The enthusiasm and joy for life of the campers and volunteer staff is an inspiration! Camp Jabberwocky is the oldest running sleepover camp for people with disabilities in the United States. Started 55 years ago as a Cerebral Palsy Camp, Camp Jabberwocky now welcomes 100 children and adults of varying disabilities to Martha’s Vineyard every summer. And the Vineyard community looks forward to welcoming them! Another loved “institution” that is active in the disabled community is Chilmark Chocolates. They have an amazingly delicious product and employ many disabled adults year round. If you have never sampled their product, you really should!
As an interesting aside, embracing people with disabilities is a long standing tradition on Martha’s Vineyard. During the late 17th to early 20th centuries, the majority of the inhabitants of Chilmark (“up-island” on Martha’s Vineyard) all knew sign language because of the large number of community members that were hearing impaired. According to historical accounts, the hearing impaired members were not seen as disabled because everyone knew sign language and could therefore communicate with each other. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language later merged with some others to become what is now American Sign Language.
As a hotel operator for the past 25 years, I have lived through some of the operational challenges to businesses since the ADA was first rolled out. Trying to figure out how to retro fit old buildings with ramps and widen doorways to accommodate wheelchairs was just the beginning… Did you ever wonder how to get a wheelchair onto the beach? Several of our beaches now have board walkways to make them accessible to wheelchairs. Small communities with older buildings and narrow streets will continue to have accessibility challenges as needed improvements persist; but much progress has been made in the past 20 years, which has benefited all of us. I hope in the next 20 years all of our communities will evolve into what Chilmark used to be; and no one will be seen as disabled! Do you have a memory of the ADA creation or the way it has affected you or your time on Martha’s Vineyard?