The disability camp that started a revolution

New Netflix film 'Crip Camp' traces the roots of disability activism.

“This camp changed the world, and nobody knows the story.” 

So begins co-director and narrator Jim LeBrecht in the opening scenes of Crip Camp. A critically lauded award-winning documentary film directed by LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, Crip Camp tells the story of a summer camp and its impact on the disability revolution in the United States. 

Attending summer camp can change a kid’s life. As Crip Camp vividly captures, the experience for several disabled youth at a place called Camp Jened led to significant national changes in the form of political movements and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

No sidelines

Crip Camp opens with actual grainy footage of Camp Jened in 1971. Started in 1952 in the Catskill Mountains, Camp Jened was created for children and youth with disabilities. Over time, the camp program was influenced by societal changes, and this led to creativity, less structure, and more freedom. Camp director Larry Allison is recorded saying, “Jened was an opportunity to try to do some different things. We realized the problem did not exist with people with disabilities. The problem existed with people that didn’t have disabilities. It was our problem. So, it was important for us to change.” For youth who were marginalized at home, the camp culture made room for all. 

According to camp staff, it was difficult to tell who was camper and who was counselor at Camp Jened. Everyone took care of each other, and there were no sidelines. Swimming, sports and typical camp activities were offered with the flexibility to accommodate the diversity of needs.  As former counselor Lionel Je’ Woodyard described Camp Jened’s softball games, “You wouldn’t be picked to be on the team back home. But at Camp Jened, you had to go up to bat.” 

A disability movement

Crip Camp includes a cast of actual main characters; everyone and everything about their stories is not scripted. Images are cleverly pieced together to tell of childhood memories and early experiences with discrimination while also highlighting the camp years as pivotal. The film weaves their camp experiences within the telling of political events from 1970-1990. Significant focus is given to America’s Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 504. 

Black and white footage from Camp Jened in 1971 captures a young Judy Heumann, leading fellow campers with meal planning. After her camp years, Judy went on to help spark a disability movement, lead the 28 day “504 Sit-in” in 1977, and work with heads of state and government to promote the rights of the national and international disability community. Deemed a fire hazard by her local school when she tried to enroll as a child, today, she is recognized internationally as a disability activist and leader. 

A still from Crip Camp by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Steve Honigsbaum.

Identity & community

The film includes mature content in a few spots throughout the film, specifically with reference to sexuality. Though it may be uncomfortable to some ears, the context offers a fulsome perspective to the struggle disabled adults still have today in being seen as equally human.

More uncomfortable and horrific are the newsreel images of children being housed at Willowbrook State school, a New York State institution for children and youth with disabilities. Crip Camp includes a short excerpt from 1972 as part of its telling of the story of the disability revolution. The film juxtaposes images of children at Willowbrook, curled up naked on the floor with footage from a few years later of persons with disabilities arranging their own caregivers at the Centre for Independent Living in Berkley, CA. The point is clear.

Throughout the film, LeBrecht offers narration and personal reflection. Towards the end, he explains his own shift in thinking about disability. He thought he wanted to find a way to overcome his disability, but through his experience at Camp Jened and his work with the disability revolution, he began to embrace his disability as part of his identity. 

The story of disability rights continues still today. Films such as Crip Camp illustrate the power of a societal mindshift: Diversity of ability is integral for complete community – and we are all the better for it.

Where can I watch this? Released through Netflix in 2020, the film is also currently accessible on YouTube. It is recommended viewers open the subtitles option. Though Crip Camp includes subtitles within the film, the additional script provided through the YouTube platform facilitates easier understanding of the content presented. 


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