‘Crip Camp’ Tells the Story of the Birth of the Disability Rights Movement

A life-affirming vision of social progress

When the title of the Netflix documentary Crip Camp came across my Twitter feed, I was alarmed. Not exactly PC. Then I realized that most of the people singing its praises had that blue wheelchair disability icon in their profiles. This piqued my curiosity.

Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama and directed by Nicole Newnham and one of the film’s subjects, Jim LeBrecht, Crip Camp is about a community of disability activists that came out of a camp for the disabled in the Catskills. Camp Jened’s founders started it in the 50s, solely for kids with disabilities. The camp’s activism started brewing in the 70s, along with the rest of the civil rights movement. At that time, hippies, able-bodied and disabled, ran Camp Jened. Described by several former campers as a utopia, it was a place where young people who were regularly ostracized, ignored, segregated, and sometimes straight-up locked away in an institution, could come together and not feel othered.

The first part of the film focuses on life at Camp Jened. There is, thankfully, copious archival documentary footage where viewers can experience the joy of the camp first hand. The campers interview each other about sex, romance, and ways in which their parents drive them crazy. Very relatable. Anyone who has been to an idyllic summer camp, where you felt seen and accepted for the first time, will understand the devastation of having to leave that place at summer’s end and go back to a life of being othered.

Many former campers came together to begin their adult lives in San Francisco.  A hotbed of liberalism and weirdness, San Francisco was the perfect place for their activism to thrive. Disabled folks created an independent living community there. Meanwhile, in 1973, the government ratified Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This required institutions that received federal funds to make themselves accessible to everyone. It was a lovely sentiment that officials avoided and ignored for four years. Former Camp Jened counselor Judy Heumann organized protests and sit-ins to call attention to this federal foot-dragging.

The film takes us inside the 504 sit-in in San Francisco, one of the longest non-violent sit-ins in a federal building in US history, lasting 25 days. That’s a long time for anyone, but for people who normally have caregivers helping them with their basic needs, it’s an eternity. The FBI cut off the building’s phone service, so the deaf people started communicating with the outside by signing out the windows. One of the disabled protestors created a makeshift refrigerator to keep food cold.

In an act of true solidarity, the Black Panthers came in and fed the protestors who weren’t on hunger strike. It was an incredible effort. Meanwhile, Judy Heumann organized another sit-in on Madison Ave in New York City that paralyzed midtown Manhattan at rush hour, as well as the Capitol Crawl in DC. Once the news media flooded the airwaves with these images, officials finally felt the pressure, and signed the 504 regulations.

Watching these former campers talk about their relationships, their struggles, and their monumental achievements, juxtaposed with so much original footage of the camp and the protests, makes for a powerful and engaging film. Le Brecht and Newnham have assembled a compelling piece that is both a slice of life and a slice of history. In the end, the story circles back to the personal lives of many campers. We see their present, we meet their children, and we learn who is no longer with us.

We all devoured the bizarreness of the Tiger King documentary, but Crip Camp offers a more uplifting and life-affirming story in which America moves forward and evolves. And isn’t that what we need right now? Watch it. You won’t be sorry.

Mia McCullough

Mia McCullough is a playwright and filmmaker. Her plays have been seen around the country at various theatres including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Old Globe, Red Fern Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, and Chicago Dramatists. Season One of her web series The Haven is available on OTV/ www.weareo.tv and her book Transforming Reality, on the creative writing process, is available on www.lulu.com.

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