If you’re looking for something truly inspirational to distract from the current state of things, Netflix’s “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” might be just the ticket. This documentary focuses on an idyllic summer camp for kids and teens with disabilities in the Catskills in the early ’70s that turned out to be a breeding ground for the modern disability rights movement.
Located just a short distance from Woodstock, Camp Jened in 1971 was a welcome and heady escape from the world for a group of kids with disabilities from polio to cerebral palsy. At home, when the law offered no protections or guarantees of equality, their disabilities governed their lives. The now-grown campers describe how they were excluded from many normal childhood activities and institutions, from sports to school. But at camp, they got to experience what it was like to just be young. They swam. They dated. They played sports. They goofed around. They debated. And they got to be around a vibrant group of people who saw a person first, not a disability.
Directors Nicole Newham and James LeBrecht, a Hollywood sound designer and mixer who was once a Jened camper himself, use nearly 40-year-old footage, photos and present-day interviews to bring the unique setting to life. Not only was the camp something to look forward to every year, it helped the kids see, as one puts it, that their lives could be better. That idea was enough to propel some of the campers into a lifetime of activism that resulted in real and positive changes for people living with disabilities.
Judy Heumann, who was a Jened camper and then counselor, would become a major figure in the fight for disability rights as she and others made their way to Berkeley and learned the art of the protest. At one in New York, a handful of people — many in wheelchairs — essentially shut down the city by blocking one intersection. At another, the “504 sit-in,” more than 100 people in the disabled community occupied the local offices of the Department of Health, Welfare and Education for over 25 days, demanding that the Carter Administration guarantee their civil rights.
It’s a necessary and sobering look at a not too recent past when this country treated people with disabilities as barely human. The examples of their systemic exclusion from everyday society, from the seemingly small (like being turned away from ice cream shops) to the major (like being overlooked for jobs), are appalling. One soundbite has Richard Nixon bemoaning the cost of installing ramps and elevators around public transportation centers, wondering just how many people it would benefit anyway. Another sickening clip from a news broadcast featuring a very young Geraldo Rivera shows the horrifying conditions at Willowbrook, a state-run institution in New York for people with disabilities.
But what makes “Crip Camp,” which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, so wonderful are the people who attended that camp so many years ago and the joy you see in their faces recounting those youthful days. It’s a worthy story even without the coda of the fight for their civil rights. You never know where empowerment might stem from: Sometimes, it’s a hippie camp in the Catskills.
“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language including sexual references.” Running time: 106 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.