Crip Camp uncovers unique origins of disability activism.
His parents were told he would only survive a few hours after birth. It was the late 1950s, and James LeBrecht ’78 was born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord. Although the condition affected his mobility, he survived. And not only that, he thrived. The doctors were wrong.
While many children with disabilities at that time were sent to institutions, LeBrecht was one of the few who attended public school, often the only student in his school to use a wheelchair. He would later travel 3,000 miles from the east coast to attend UC San Diego, helping establish the Disabled Student Union in his first year as an undergraduate. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, the Marshall College student studied acoustics in the Theatre and Dance Department, hoping he could one day be the sound man for the Grateful Dead. To this day, he often sports a tie-dye Dead T-shirt, even after his 35-year career in sound design, first at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and later working in film, particularly documentaries. “I had seen the power of documentary films,” says LeBrecht, “and I saw films about disability too, but I always felt like there was something lacking in them.”
LeBrecht had a story of his own, however, one he thought might make for a perfect documentary. He approached a director and producer he’d worked with, Nicole Newnham, and told her about a summer camp for kids with disabilities that he attended in the 1970s.
“The wild thing is that this camp changed the world,” he said. “And no one knows this story.”
A three-hour ride away from bustling New York City, Camp Jened was a handful of rustic wood cabins set among green fields and fragrant pine trees. The Catskill Mountain summer camp dated back to the 1950s and was specifically made for hosting teens with disabilities, though its traditional camp structure of organized roles and activities would eventually be influenced by the 1970s counter-culture. As a teenager, LeBrecht heard about “a camp for the handicapped, run by hippies.” He recalled someone telling him, “You know, you’ll probably smoke dope with the counselors.” He was all in.
Camp Jened would become a sort of utopia for teens with disabilities, a place where they could be themselves, as themselves, and have respite from a day-to-day world that was not built for them. Instead of exclusion, impatience or indifference, there was freedom, fellowship and acceptance. Regardless of the degree of disability, everyone participated, not only in camp activities like baseball and swimming, but also in daily decision-making, such as choosing the week’s meals and how to structure their days. Having such agency over their lives was a revelation, and as it changed the course of these campers’ lives, it would eventually come to change the world.
In such an inclusive environment where everyone had a voice, these teenagers began to question their world back home. Casual bunk talk and camp meetings turned into unflinching discussions about accessibility, equality and the right to be understood and respected as a human being. Brought together by this camp, and born from these unassuming moments, were future disability rights activists and organizers.
“Camp enabled us to recognize that the dreams we might have been thinking about were not going to become a reality if we waited for somebody else to do something,” says Judy Heumann, former Jened camper and counselor with a long career in disability rights thereafter. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not include disabled individuals, so we saw that if we wanted change, we had to make it ourselves.”
Completely by chance, a New York filmmaking group called the People’s Video Theater stumbled upon Camp Jened. After running into a few campers at a gas station, they brought new handheld video technology and asked the campers to film their life at camp. Their aim was to document the lives of marginalized people, giving them tools to create for themselves, a form of alternative video journalism. “They gave us the agency,” says LeBrecht, who, at age 15, took the filmmakers on a tour of the camp. “They didn’t think we were anything less than a group of teens and young adults, and we grabbed at the opportunity.”
This archival footage of the camp was essential to the documentary LeBrecht wanted to make. With Crip Camp finding support from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, co-producers LeBrecht and Newnham tracked the footage down. “We received the hard drive with all these videos, and it was like Christmas morning,” says LeBrecht. The grainy, 40-year-old footage captured joy and smiles, first loves and best friends, along with powerful conversations about overprotective parents, personal frustrations and disappointments with society. The campers would realize that they needed each other, not just at camp or back home afterward, but well throughout their lives, if they wanted to make the changes they hoped for.
By 1972, many campers would come back together again for protests organized by the group Disabled in Action, marching and demonstrating in the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C., to bring attention to building and transportation accessibility and the right to work. These protests would soon expand west, to Berkeley, Calif., and come to include disabled Vietnam War veterans, as well as non-disabled allies such as ASL interpreters, personal care attendants and parents of disabled children.
While the disabled rights movement was gaining traction by 1977, advocates were still waiting for the government to clarify who the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applied to, specifically Section 504, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded programs. The stalemate resulted in a landmark 25-day occupation of the San Francisco regional office of Health, Education and Welfare, the longest sit-in ever at a federal building. The demonstration was led by Heumann, and several others who attended Camp Jened were among more than 150 people who worked together to live under limited means, much like they did at camp. The protest drew nationwide media attention that would finally prompt the issuance of regulations to protect disabled persons.
As the film documents, the occupation and resulting legislation was a big win for disability rights in the U.S., but it was just the beginning. For instance, protections were only legislated for federally funded programs; the measures did not apply to private organizations. Protests continued throughout the 1980s, culminating with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which mandated equal access to employment, transportation and public places for nearly 40 million physically and mentally disabled Americans. But as time and Crip Camp tells, the passage of legislation and enforcement of legislation are very different things. Still, the film shows how solidarity, courage and conviction are instrumental to great progress, and how unity, be it forged at a summer camp or shared at a sit-in, can bring about change.
“You can make a law, but if society’s attitudes don’t change, it’s not worth a lot,” says former camper Denise Sherer Jacobson by the film’s end. LeBrecht adds, “There are still many things to change besides ramps. There are minds.”
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is streaming now on Netflix. Tell us your thoughts on it at firstname.lastname@example.org