Arthur Campbell, Jr. doesn’t want your sympathy; he just wants what most people do: a living wage, a meaningful social life, a few good laughs and the means to get around. In If I Can’t Do It, filmmaker Walter Brock offers an unflinching portrait of one cantankerous and courageous disabled man who, with many others, is pushing for independence and an equal slice of the American pie. From the remote hills of Kentucky to the hallowed halls of Congress, join Arthur on his own unforgettable ride through life and the disability rights movement. An intensely personal, deeply humanizing look at what it takes to live with a severely disabling condition, If I Can’t Do It is the story of an ordinary man confronted by extraordinary circumstances.
In 1987, filmmaker Walter Brock was hired by the state of Kentucky to work on a series of films about disability issues. Several weeks into the project, he met Campbell. “Nothing in my life prepared me for my first sight of Arthur,” Brock recalls. “There he sat in his wheelchair, drooling, arms flailing, making loud noises that I could not imagine made sense. My first thought was, ‘What kind of life could this guy possibly have? Maybe the most merciful thing would be to put him out of his misery.’ Years later, this initial reaction still haunts me. Where does such prejudice come from? I want viewers to experience the discomfort that I felt, to process and examine it, and come out on the other side of that discomfort with a greater sense of acceptance and tolerance and awareness of the barriers that affect people and prevent them from participating in the life that most of us able-bodied Americans take for granted.”
Born with cerebral palsy in an isolated cabin in the Kentucky mountains in 1944, Campbell spent the first 38 years of his life at home, sheltered by his overprotective parents. Determined to leave home one way or another, he went on a hunger strike to push his parents into placing him in an institution, the only choice he thought existed. Campbell’s parents panicked and brought him to a hospital where he was placed in the psychiatric ward, evaluated and found to be perfectly capable of independent living. Soon, aided by social service workers, Campbell got his first electric wheelchair, rented an apartment and began the difficult process of learning to fend for himself.
Brock and Campbell spent six years collaborating on If I Can’t Do It, and the two became good friends in the process. The film features intimate interviews with Campbell, his parents, siblings, therapists and first roommate, along with other disability rights activists, including members of ADAPT*, where Campbell received his first training in civil disobedience. “Where would the blacks be if that poor, tired lady hadn’t decided to fight back and not give up her seat on the bus?” asks Campbell. “It takes someone to make a stand, someone to say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ In our case, we can’t even get on the bus, let alone ride in the back.” Crashing their wheelchairs through police lines and manacling themselves to buses in acts of civil disobedience, Campbell and his fellow activists helped dramatize the need for access for people with disabilities. In one of the film’s most stirring sequences, Campbell participates in a Washington, D.C. protest rally in which 70 disabled activists laboriously drag themselves up the steps of our nation’s Capitol. Their efforts helped spur the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
“For most of my first 38 years, I had no life outside my parents’ home and didn’t know or believe any was possible,” Campbell writes in his unpublished autobiography. “During this time, I watched a lot of television and I never saw a program about anyone whose life was like mine. Before I got out of my parents’ house, I thought my problems were unique — that is, until I began to be around other disabled people, and I discovered how similar our stories were.”
“Our culture has a tendency to assign certain roles to people with disabilities; they’re either heroes or pathetic, pitiable poster children,” says Brock. “This film attempts to look at Arthur Campbell as a human being, to look at him not only through the lens of his accomplishments and his aspirations, but also through his foibles, his grandiosity and his many charming, endearing and infuriating qualities.” During the course of the film, the witty, stubborn and often exasperating Campbell feuds with his sister, has a falling out with his radical activist pals and loses his job as a disabled rights advocate for the state of Kentucky. Neither a hero nor a saint, he emerges as a far more compelling character: a complex individual working to fulfill his dreams by seizing control of his own existence and living his life on his own terms. “Do you think I have delusions of grandeur?” Campbell asks at the film’s end. “Maybe so. But where would I be without my ego?”