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‘Crip Camp’: Netflix doc unveils a hidden history

Dan Webster

Free from going to movie theaters, I continue to seek out as many streaming sources as I can find. One film that I discovered courtesy of Netflix, is a documentary that is as educational about U.S. history as it is uplifting. It's titled "Crip Camp."

Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Over time, language changes. And with those changes come new ways of thinking.

Or … maybe it occurs the other way around. Maybe new ways of thinking cause us to seek out different ways to say things.

Whichever comes first, the fact remains: Language changes and so do the ways in which we think. One example of that axiom? The fact that we see persons with disabilities differently than we once did. 

Or, rather, the fact that we see them at all. Because once upon a time, but not that long ago, people who for whatever reason didn’t fit into what was described as normal tended to get shut away. Whether what set them apart was present from birth, was caused by an accident or by some contracted disease, people who didn’t fit the so-called norm sometimes were institutionalized, other times shunted off to special-needs classrooms, but mostly were simply hidden from public view.

And they were referred to, often enough, as the disabled, or the handicapped. Not as persons with disabilities, but persons whose disabilities actually defined – and limited – who they were. It was even common enough to hear them referred to as cripples.

Which is largely why the title of the documentary “Crip Camp” sounds so jarring. But that, of course is the point. The film, which is streaming now on Netflix, uses the word “crip” – one of many such words that exist in virtually every language that are used to brand people as different or as something less – and reclaims it. By doing so, a pejorative is thus transformed into a badge, maybe of honor, certainly of power.

It is a transformation that didn’t happen overnight, though. Surely, the kids who in the early 1970s flocked to Camp Jened, a summer camp located in upstate New York, didn’t start out feeling empowered. With bodies bent and twisted, limbs shrunken or even missing, campers such as James Lebrecht and Judith Heumann could be excused for feeling like societal outsiders.

Yet Camp Jened, caught up as much of the country was in the counter-culture movement that led to such events as the Woodstock Music Festival, proved to be a haven for the campers with cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy and/or blindness. It was at Camp Jened that, for the first time, Lebrecht, Heumann and dozens of other campers with disabilities felt as if they truly fit in – where they were treated with respect and understanding and never with condescension.

And for many, it was where they began to realize that they had the same rights as anyone to access what most people take for granted: the ability to board a bus, to navigate a set of stairs, to sit in a regular classroom, to hold down a job, to have the opportunity to prove that they, too, were capable human beings.

“Crip Camp,” which was co-directed by former camper Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham (co-director of the 2006 documentary “The Rape of Europa”), is partly a study of camp life, with black-and-white footage capturing Lebrecht and others communing, playing sports and even engaging in first-time romances. But it evolves into a larger study of the disability-rights movement itself, which came about after much effort – including a 25-day San Francisco sit-in protest in 1977, organized and led by Lebrecht’s camp buddy Heumann – and which resulted, in 1990, with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I don’t typically end a movie review with a quote, literary or otherwise. But in searching for the right sentiment to apply to Lebrecht and Newhham’s documentary, I stumbled upon these lines written by the poet T.S. Eliot:

“For last year's words belong to last year's language 
And next year's words await another voice.”

Tired of last year’s language, and unwilling to wait for anyone else to provide another voice, the kids of Camp Jened ended up creating next year’s words all on their own.

And principally among them should be the two that tell their story: “Crip Camp.”

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