The amount of material in the new Netflix documentary Crip Camp — titled after the nickname given to Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled teenagers — could easily have filled a miniseries rather than a single movie. But to credit directors James Lebrecht (who also appears in the film as a subject) and Nicole Newnham, it never feels like they’re biting off more than they can chew. The material is dense by necessity, since prominent figures in the fight for disabled rights figure into modern curricula so rarely that Newnham and Lebrecht have to fill their audience in on a lot. By focusing on specific individuals and the shared starting ground of Camp Jened, the filmmakers find a concrete thread to follow rather than getting lost in how much history there is to cover. More importantly, they bring a personal, empathetic touch to the story that makes it feel immediate, relatable, and like a call to further action.
Supported by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production deal with Netflix, Crip Camp begins at camp. Jened’s counselors are inexperienced — one of them recalls that they’d never seen a disabled person before working at the camp. The campers are dealing with everything from polio to cerebral palsy. As meager as the camp’s resources seem, however, the campers clearly love it. They’re free of the social strata that bind them outside of Camp Jened — elsewhere, they explain, they’d be placed in a hierarchy based on how visible their disabilities are — and they don’t have to worry about being viewed as disabled first, and human beings second.
The documentary footage, shot from 1971-73 by the People’s Video Theater, is rich, ranging from clips of the campers showing off for the camera and enjoying the summer to tough discussions on how to deal with overprotective parents. This footage serves as the film’s springboard, as the camp’s social bonds, and the sudden freedom granted by a community conscious of different needs, rather than dismissive of them, grow into collective action, and the familiar, friendly tone set at the summer camp is also used to frame the more serious history these campers become a part of.
After introducing the camp, Newnham and Lebrecht follow one of the camp counselors, Judy Heumann, back to the world as she becomes a fierce civil-rights advocate. Crip Camp covers the 1977 San Francisco 504 occupation, where she was a co-organizer, as well as the passing of the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Heumann is fighting for things that differently abled people today can largely take for granted — she notes in one scene that she’s tired of feeling thankful for things like accessible toilet stalls when they should be everywhere. In another piece of archival footage that highlights just how necessary ADA compliance is, protestors abandon their crutches and wheelchairs to physically drag themselves up the Capitol steps.
Through it all, the film points out former Jened campers who take part in the fight for equal rights, spurred on by their experiences at camp. Familiar faces crop up throughout, emphasizing the importance the camp had in creating a base for this kind of collective action. Solidarity is paramount. And that campers continually reappear feels like seeing old friends.
It’s also important that Crip Camp always takes a proactive stance, rather than offering its subjects the kind of pity they say makes them feel alienated when they’re outside of the camp. The focus is on what the subjects can do instead of what they can’t, and when cases of neglect or abuse are addressed, as in a segment on Willowbrook Institution, the tone taken is frustration with the system that allowed it to happen. On top of that, there’s a sense of camaraderie through the whole film, as stories are told first-hand by Lebrecht and those he went to camp with (and later, their friends), which keeps the story up close and personal.
That focus on individuals throughout this recent history helps keep Crip Camp from feeling too broad, given that the entire history of the disabled-rights movement is a lot of ground to cover. The message that inclusivity and community can spur real change is important, and no less urgent today than it was in the 1970s. And the film’s slice-of-life tone makes this kind of action feel achievable rather than abstract.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is streaming on Netflix now.