It’s difficult to describe the sheer power of “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” a documentary that traces the DNA of the disability rights movement to a Catskills summer camp that hosted disabled kids from the 1950s to the 1970s. Co-directed by former camper Jim Lebrecht (with Nicole Newnham), and the winner of the documentary Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Crip Camp” uses archival footage shot at Camp Jened during the summers of 1970-72 by the People’s Video Theater, as well as interviews with campers to craft a portrait of summer camp days. It evolves into the riveting tale of a decades-long radical revolution that changed the world forever.
Lebrecht serves as a guide on this story of activism sparked at a humble utopia outside Woodstock. A wheelchair user born with spina bifida, Lebrecht attended the camp as a teenager in search of the classic teenage experience one might find with a bunch of hippies in the Catskills: make-outs, singalongs and smoking cigarettes. It’s the normalcy of it all that made Jened such a radical place. It was just like any other camp, with dances, baseball games, messy bunks and flirtations, as well as wheelchair-accessible buildings and compassionate care for all bodies. The campers were treated not as different or challenging, but just like any other teens, without pity, condescension or confusion, just basic respect and humanity in an environment built for them to access, which shamefully was not the case in the United States at that time.
Just letting the teens be teens, the culture of the place is one of radical inclusion and democracy. Each camper is always granted a chance to speak, no matter their ability, because all their voices matter. No longer relegated to special ed classes or institutions, their personalities and skills emerge, like Judy Heumann, a natural leader who skillfully marshals her fellow campers to organize a lasagna night and offers diplomatic comments on the crabs outbreak. Finally given a taste of true equality, revolution starts to rumble in the wilderness. As Lebrecht comments, Camp Jened gave them something tangible to hope and work for. “What we saw at that camp was that our lives could be better. You don’t have anything to strive for if you don’t know that it exists.”
After the campers moved on into the world, the rubber really met the road with the extraordinary movement started by Heumann and much of her cohorts from Camp Jened in working for equal rights for disabled individuals. The film documents the stunning 26-day sit-in that Heumann and her fellow activists undertook at a San Francisco federal building to demand that Health, Education and Welfare department head Joseph Califano sign Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It would radically reshape our civil landscape, enshrining the rights of disabled folks into law for the first time, expanding job opportunities and requiring accessibility for buildings and transit.
This powerful protest was physically and mentally challenging for so many of the protesters. But it was also deeply empowering and a decisive first milestone in the eventual road to the signing of the American Disability Act in 1990. Lebrecht and Newnham skillfully thread this civil rights movement back to its beginnings at Camp Jened, a place that was radical simply because it was so normal, where camp director Larry Allison dared to imagine a place where disability was just a part of daily life. In its depiction of radical activism undertaken by those who have been the most mistreated and overlooked in civil society, this inspiring and uplifting documentary should be required watching for every American.
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