Inside "Crip Camp"

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on May 06, 2020 # News

“I felt notable.”

That’s a comment that “Crip Camp” co-writer/director Jim LeBrecht received from a young man with a disability after watching Jim LeBrecht’s and Nicole Newnham’s groundbreaking film. The remark knocked Jim on the floor. The kid had probably never felt “notable” in his life. He had no doubt felt, like most people with disabilities -- young and old -- lesser-than, unattractive, and the opposite of notable, unimportant and ignored.

“Crip Camp,” if you had a chance to catch it on Netflix, makes every disabled person feel good. The Audience Prize winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it simultaneously tells a personal story and a historical one. It begins at a summer camp for teens with disabilities, circa 1971. Among those campers is Jim LeBrecht, born with spina bifida, who we see fall in with a group of disabled peers not being treated like charity cases or children. The camp, the Catskills-located Camp Jened, was run in the same spirit of Woodstock, just down the road. The teens were allowed to be teens – they fell in love, sat around singing Grateful Dead songs, played baseball, and just hung out. They were all disabled, some severely, which meant they had to help each other run the bases or get in and out of the pool. It was an instant community, never before experienced by the participants, and as the film unfolds, it is a community that changed American history forever. Crip Camp Movie Poster

The film took five years to make and was blessed with a treasure drove of found black-and-white video footage shot at the camp. It took Jim and Nicole over a year to find this priceless footage, five and a half hours of it, allowing them to convey the here-and-now experience of camp life and its profound effect on the campers. One of the hallmarks of the film is how leisurely and unhurried it brings you into this world. It is both joyous and poignant.

Some campers have Cerebral Palsy (CP) and other disorders that make it difficult for them to speak. But they do speak, and they are smart and funny. The audience, Nicole noted in a conversation last week, is often initially uncomfortable at these moments, but as they learn to adjust and pay attention, their discomfort disappears. They lose, if only for a moment, a fear of embarrassment almost all non-disabled people feel around those with a speech impairment.

One of the counselors at Camp Jened is 21-year-old Judy Neumann, a young wheelchair user and polio survivor at 18 months from Brooklyn and clearly someone who knows how to take charge. As the film moves on from Camp Jened, Judy moves on from polling campers if they want veal or lasagna for dinner to organizing a group in New York to protest the inaccessible subway system, and from there, seven years later, spearheading the first significant sit-in of disabled protesters in a Federal building in San Francisco to force the national government to take disability rights seriously.

This inspired moment of civil disobedience, called the Section 504 Sit-in, is wonderfully recreated in the movie and according to Nicole, a point where theatre audiences were on their feet. When the Black Panthers showed up with food and support, viewers went nuts, like they were the calvary in an old Western. Judy and her fellow dissidents, after twenty-five days of holding their ground, finally won the support of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to finance meaningful changes in disability access to public buildings.

I asked Jim if, in the wake of this excellent film, he was now ready to direct a big Hollywood blockbuster and he said, “We’ve already done a superhero film with Judy Neumann.” Good point, Jim. For the past forty years, Judy has been a transformative figure in the Independent Living Movement and the Global Disability Rights struggles and not all that well known in the American disability community. Thanks to “Crip Camp,” that should change.

There is nothing didactic, preachy, or propagandistic about “Crip Camp.” Because it leads off with summer camp, inherently carefree and fun-loving, the important history lesson it later conveys, one most disabled people don’t know, is also imbued with high spirits and the excitement of a larger disability community forming for the first time in American life. This is far from the only disability rights story to be told, but I can’t imagine another one where disabled people are fending off camp-infested bed bugs at one moment and standing up to rank discrimination a few years later. The whole tale belies the belief that a disability means a sad, enfeebled, attenuated life. It doesn’t. You have the time. Watch the movie.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.