Story at a glance
- The documentary was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions.
- It tells the story of a camp for disabled teens in the 1970s, many of whom went on to become heavily involved in disability activism.
Netflix’s documentary “Crip Camp” came to the table with impressive pedigree, as the first documentary from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions after the company’s documentary "American Factory" won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in February.
"Crip Camp" tells the story of the teens who attended Camp Jened in upstate New York in the 1970s and went on to make their mark as disability rights activists.
“Over the years, as I worked as a sound mixer on some wonderful documentaries, I became aware of the power of documentary film. I had a sense that there was an important story behind the exodus for people that I knew from the camp from New York to Berkeley, California,” co-director Jim LeBrecht, who attended Camp Jened, told Changing America in an email. “As a story about people with disabilities that would reveal a personal look at our lives with the goal of, hopefully, changing the perception and stigma around people with disabilities (PWD).”
LeBrecht’s co-director Nicole Newnham added that while LeBrecht, an accomplished sound designer and mixer, has worked on her films for years, he casually floated the idea of a documentary about the camp at a lunch.
“[J]ust his description of Jened as a place of hippy mayhem, freedom and awakening shattered preconceptions that I held.. and delighted me,” she told Changing America in an email. “I know Jim as a joyous, iconoclastic, very fun person and I was drawn to immersion myself in a story filled with that much badassery and joy. It was as we discussed and researched the link between the camp experience and the movement that the full story arc emerged.”
The campers’ time together didn’t end after camp, and neither does the documentary, which follows alumni like legendary disability activist Judith Heumann, who was a counselor at the camp, as they fought for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1977, which bans discrimination on the basis of disability in any program receiving federal funds, and for the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
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“I do think that many of us that came to the camp for the first time were living with the assumption that the lack of access and opportunities was just our lot in life,” LeBrecht, a wheelchair user who was born with spina bifida, told Changing America. “Too bad, you were born that way or that you became disabled. At that time, the expectations for PWDs were so very low.”
LeBrecht said meeting Heumann “changed the course of my life,” and that after she prevailed against the New York City Board of Education when she sued for a teaching position, “[f]or the first time, I found out that we could fight back and that people wouldn’t simply shut us down and make us go away. And the role model that Judy and the other counselors with disabilities provided me showed me an example that I had NEVER seen: People like me, as adults, with jobs and lives in the ‘real world’.”
Heumann was the first person LeBrecht recommended speaking to, Newnham told Changing America. “Following up on Jim’s hunch, we asked her if she believed the camp experience — at Jened and at other camps and clubs where teens with disabilities created community — was foundational to the movement that came later,” she said.
Heumann agreed wholeheartedly, according to Newnham, saying “she remembered political conversations in the bunks late at night where the girls would talk about the injustices they faced and how they could build a movement of their own.”
The film has two emotional crescendos depicting key moments in the history of disability rights, the 1977 504 Sit-In, in which activists occupied federal buildings to push the Carter administration to adopt the long-delayed regulation, and the 1990 “Capitol Crawl,” in which physically disabled activists abandoned their wheelchairs and other assistive technology to climb the Capitol’s front steps ahead of the ADA’s passage.
Today, when disability rights remain a hot-button issue, LeBrecht told Changing America “I think that many of those involved with the modern-day fight for disability rights and disability justice have sought out their history.”
“If you know the story of the 504 sit in and the Capitol Crawl, you see by example what has been successful in the past when it comes to forcing change and bringing attention to these life and death issues,” he added.
“It’s been very moving talking with some of the amazing activists who are part of the ‘ADA Generation,’” Newnham added, noting that multiple people have said footage of Heumann speaking during the sit-in introduced them to activism.
“Also that spirit that community elders like Corbett O’Toole who is featured in the film articulate — that because disability is so diverse, to create community you have to listen to each other and witness each other — I see that spirit carried forward very strongly by some of the amazing younger activists we’ve engaged with,” she added, noting that they have partnered with two such activists, Stacey Park and Andréa LaVant, on the film’s impact campaign to ensure the platform amplifies diverse voices from the movement.
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