What to Watch: In soul-crushing, joyful Crip Camp disabled people speak for themselves

By Alliance Communications Coordinator Amy Durr

“In the early 1970s, teenagers with disabilities faced a future shaped by isolation, discrimination and institutionalization. Camp Jened, a ramshackle camp ‘for the handicapped’ (a term no longer used) in the Catskills, exploded those confines,” says CripCamp.com. As the mother of a child with disabilities I was curious to watch this award-winning documentary produced by the Obamas and hailed by the disability community in honor of Disability Pride Month. I did not expect to be kicked in the stomach.

Crip Camp draws extensively on terrific contemporaneous black-and-white footage shot by the People’s Video Theater… But even more than those activist videos, Crip Camp unfolds from a perspective of lived experience,” according to the NYT. And the lived experience of disabled people in the 60s and 70s is a gut wrenching story. The film includes a brief horrifying section showing the realities of institutionalization as well as the honest voices of teenagers growing up largely forsaken and without hope, at least until they attended Camp Jened.

It was enlightening for me to watch the campers care for each other, making sure each person had what they needed and empowering each other to play sports, date, and swim (a terrifying thought for many parents of children with disabilities — I give a nod of respect to the parents who sent their disabled children away to summer camp in the early 70s). The camp scenes are provocative, joyous, and awe inspiring.

The camp was so life-changing for many of the campers that “their bonds endured as many migrated West to Berkeley, California — a hotbed of activism where friends from Camp Jened realized that disruption, civil disobedience, and political participation could change the future for millions,” according to CripCamp.com. It’s truly breathtaking to watch the former campers become transformative participants fighting for their civil rights during the American disability rights movement in the 1970s.

The defining moments of the film are from the San Francisco 504 sit-in. “It was not that easy to organize people, particularly people with physical disabilities, in those days, due to lack of transit, support services and so on. A sit in meant people would go and stay, until the issue was resolved definitively. The San Francisco federal building sit in…lasted 26 days and was critical in forcing the signing of the [504] regulations almost unchanged. It began with a rally outside the federal building, then we marched inside where between 1 and 200 people would remain until the end,” writes participant Kitty Cone.

“It’s rousing stuff, especially when we see how Black Panthers and LGBTQ+ activists at the time rallied alongside, aware that their individual fights were ultimately not that different, and it’s one that’s similarly not over. The shameful lack of wheelchair access within New York’s subway system, which the film traces back to callous decision-making in the 70s, remains a major problem while disability groups have filed a complaint about Covid-19-based discrimination just this week,” said the Guardian in 2020.

Progress has been made. There are sidewalk ramps and accessible buses and handicapped-accessible bathrooms. These are all important things. But the disability community continues to have to fight — against school voucher plans and rampant ableism and dismissive public opinion, for accommodations and improving accessibility and plain old acceptance.

As a sometimes overprotective parent Crip Camp challenged me. As a mother it made me cry. As a non-disabled person the film educated me in profound ways. As a human it made me want to do better. Many people are woefully under-educated about the realities of disability in 2023. Support the disability community by watching Crip Camp, following disability rights activists on social media, and promoting the voices of a community that wants to be heard speaking for itself.

You can watch Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution for free on Youtube via Netflix. The film is directed by a former camper, Jim LeBrecht, and Nicole Newnham, 

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