Crip Camp

Written and directed by James Lebrecht & Nicole Newnham. A documentary of a summer camp for people with disabilities and how it transformed their lives as well as make history with the American Disabilities Act. Running time 1 hour 46 minutes.

Synopsis

It’s the 1970s and people with disabilities were isolated, institutionalized, and marginalized. At Camp Jered, located in the Catskills of New York, they were simply teenage kids communing, swimming, playing sports, talking about their lives and the world, and coming of age.

Camp Jered, led by Larry Allison, was started as a traditional summer camp but eventually became a summer camp for disabled kids. Wheelchair bound, mentally handicapped, deaf, or blind–it didn’t matter–all were welcomed and treated like the humans they were and are while engaging in summer camp activities normally provided to non-disabled kids. Run by “hippies”, it was a utopia for the campers as they were in a place of freedom to be who there were and are without having to hide or be ashamed of their disability. The camp gave them confidence, understanding, and a voice.

One camper, Judith Heumann, would take that confidence all the way to the highest office in the land but not without the struggle to get there. After graduating from college, she moved to Berkeley, CA and got involved with disability rights, becoming a leader in the movement for accessibility change across the U.S. When Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed, it was considered a victory for the disabled as it prohibited discrimination toward the disabled. However, it wasn’t enforced. Something more had to be done.

By 1977, four years after the Act was signed, no regulations were in place. Judy, along with other disabled people, sought out legislators in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to enforce Section 504 but slow progress was made in defining disability as well as the guidelines for reforming buildings and accessibility for the disabled. Judy and the disabled decided they had to take stronger action and started with a sit-in at the San Francisco Federal Building which ended up lasting 28 days.

Judy and her cohorts were assisted by many in the community, including legislators with mattresses and supplies, Glide Memorial Church and the Black Panthers with food, local unions with transportation, and Evan White–the ONLY news reporter who would cover the sit-in. Some sit-ins would go on hunger strikes lasting as long as 22 days for their rights. During this time, congressmen came for meetings to discuss the efforts of the group.

Judy led a small group of the sit-in to Washington D.C where they were to meet with the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano and President Jimmy Carter which didn’t materialize. They held vigils and protests outside the White House, Califano’s residence, and places both frequented. Finally, under intense pressure, Califano signed the regulations the disabled had fought for.

There was still work to do and it wasn’t until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act became law protecting disabled people from discrimination as well as make spaces open to the public, both public and private, accessible to people with disabilities regardless of type of disability.

What I Liked

I loved seeing into a world I have little to no experience with. The fortitude of the people was inspiring on so many levels. I experienced many emotions while watching this film. I laughed at the jokes they told on each other. I cried at the injustice and humility they felt for just being alive. I was horrified by the conditions shown in from institutional footage. I was inspired by people who were not going to give up or let their disability keep them from having the same rights as non-disabled people. I felt proud of the people who joined them in the fight for equality. I found myself thinking, “Of course, why not? Why wouldn’t they want the same things?” I was angered by the stall tactics of the legislators, talking about how much it would cost to implement instead of the value it created for so many millions of disabled Americans.

I love that it challenged the non-disabled bubble I live in. I love that the filmmakers went full circle and brought a few of the campers back to the campsite all these years later. It isn’t a camp anymore but a construction site. (For what, I don’t recall them saying.) A bond was made at Camp Jered. Lives were changed those summers in more ways than even the counselors couldn’t have imagined. They probably thought they were just doing something nice treating kids with disabilities like any other kid over the summer months. Sure, these acts of humanity changed the teenagers who came to Camp Jered but also the United States and the world.

The film did a great job organizing the footage from Camp Jered, the sit-ins, and political timeline. Just enough from each moment in time to get the point across and evoke emotional response while maintaining enough distance to keep the story moving forward with fairness. Of course, Judy was (is) a very well spoken individual who kept the fight about the issue and not the people involved. She kept those with her at the sit-ins and the meetings engaged and involved and objective about what they were doing. She respectfully demanded action with her words and actions without falling into the trap of blaming, name calling, and violence. A born leader.

What I Wished Was Better

The end kind of wrapped up super tidy with images of those who have passed away and bits about what those still alive are doing –family, activism, work—I would have liked to know more about the fate of Camp Jered as it closed in 1977 due to financial difficulties. It’s like, at the camp’s height of truly making a difference in the world for disabled teens, the money runs out?

Final Thoughts

It made me think of the disabled people I know. Their thirst for life, love, and accessibility to participate in the world. How they still feel and are marginalized or called out for their disability instead of celebrated for everything else they are. In my non-disabled bubble, I would not openly deny anyone access to anything or diminish their civil rights. I say openly because there are obstacles I don’t know exist which I may unknowingly contribute. For this, I must have more conversations with the disabled I know to become more aware and proactive for their equality.

I encourage people to watch Crip Camp to get a glimpse of what a world could look like where people are people just having fun together like at Camp Jered. I encourage people to watch Crip Camp to see how far legislation has come for disabled people and yet how much still needs to be done for true equality. Available on Netflix. Watch the trailer below:

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