High schoolers spent their summers swatting mosquitoes, strumming guitars, and nursing sunburns and aching abs from laughing too hard in the sun. Nights were spent gossiping until wee hours in the morning, passing the occasional joint. There were fast friendships, sweet crushes, first kisses, and horny dog-day romances; there’s only mild embarrassment when mattresses are strewn across the lawn fumigated after a problematic crabs outbreak.
It was the summer of 1971 and the kids were a stone’s throw from where Woodstock had been held two years before. Camp Jened was a refuge run by hippies, a social experiment at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius that its campers, four decades later, are still amazed even existed.
“Someone said, you’ll probably smoke dope with the counselors, and I was like, sign me up!” says Jim LeBrecht at the start of the new documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, which he also co-directed with Emmy-winner Nicole Newnham. “The wild thing is that this camp changed the world, and nobody knows its story.”
Like many of the young people who attended Camp Jened, LeBrecht has spent most of his life in a wheelchair, something that precluded him from doing things other teenagers could, like attend a summer camp. Others there had polio. Some had cerebral palsy. LeBrecht remembers the weight of a lifetime of anxieties about his disability being lifted. “At camp, everybody had something going on with their body. It wasn’t a big deal.”
After opening the 2020 Sundance Film Festival this past January, where it also won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, Crip Camp arrives on Netflix Wednesday. It’s part of the debut slate of productions from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Netflix-based banner Higher Ground, which acquired Crip Camp two years ago when it was still in production. The Obamas and Higher Ground have already established quite the pedigree. They were also behind last year’s American Factory, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in February.
The film launches with remarkable archival footage of that summer at Camp Jened, eventually devoting nearly 40 minutes of the film’s running time to this black-and-white, cinema verité tape of campers experiencing what, for many of them, was an awakening.
For the first time in their lives, they felt a community. They lived a more free and open existence than they could even hope for at home. They got to be teenagers, smoking, hanging out, falling in love, and being adolescent hippies.
“Outside of camp, I didn’t feel like a cool kid,” LeBrecht says, “but at Jened I was.” Fellow camper Denise Sherer Jacobson echoes his bliss: “It was so funky, but it was a utopia. When we were there, there was no outside world.”
Camp Jened launched in 1951 as a traditional camp, but evolved into a place where, as then-camp director Larry Allison says, “teenagers can be teenagers without all the stereotypes and the labels.”
It’s hard to imagine a place like it existing now, a residential camp with no qualms accepting teens with pretty much any range of mobility and level of independence—all with no licensed medical personnel on hand and counselors who had no experience interacting with people who have disabilities. But as Allison explains, that was the point. Camp Jened thrived in a finite cultural moment: “[It] was a byproduct of the times of social experimentation. We realized the problem did not exist with people with disabilities. The problem was with people without disabilities.”
The campers also had that realization. Camp Jened doubled as the incubation center for a movement, one that would rewrite the course of U.S. history, radicalize people with disabilities around the globe, and launched one of the most important and impressive civil rights crusades in American history.
Crip Camp is a story about a ramshackle summer camp in the woods of upstate New York, and the inspiring community that formed around it. But it’s also the story of a revolution, not to mention a reminder of a period in American culture when revolutions felt possible.
As Camp Jened alumni like LeBrecht, Jacobson, and Judy Heumann, who would go on to become Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department, recall in the film, those who attended the camp energized around the fact that this assemblage of handicap-accessible bunks in the Catskills didn’t have to be a Promised Land. It could be a reality.
Crip Camp, then, takes an unexpected and illuminating—not to mention inspiring-as-hell—pivot to the efforts these people would devote their lives to: securing hard-won legal rights, accessibility, protection, acceptance, and, most of all, dignity for those with disabilities around the world. It’s one of the vital civil rights movements in modern history. Still, little is known about it; the work of its leaders and foot soldiers has yet to be duly recognized on this scale.
“The civil rights movement was going on around us, and that was an opportunity to talk about why were we excluded and what we needed to do,” Heumann says, who after leaving Camp Jened in 1972 became an activist for Disabled in Action.
One of her first acts was fighting Richard Nixon on his decision to veto the Rehabilitation Act, which contained an anti-discrimination provision buried at the end of the bill. His reasoning: it would be too expensive to make the country handicap accessible, and not enough people would be served to justify the cost. So Heumann helped organize a demonstration, rallying her friends and community to block street traffic outside Nixon’s New York office—a phalanx of wheelchair-bound protestors—the first time many of them had been galvanized in this way.
As the decade progressed, the fight’s headquarters moved to the Bay Area, where many of the Jened campers had defected. “It was like The Traveling Camp Jened Show,” jokes Corbett O’Toole, who became affiliated with the group while working at the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley.
O’Toole helped Heumann organize the 504 Sit-in in 1977, a 24-day occupation of federal buildings in order to pressure legislators into pushing the Rehabilitation Act through.
The news reports referred to the demonstrators as “an occupation army of cripples,” a steadfast group that used their perceived disabilities as resourcefulness. When the FBI cut off the phone lines inside, deaf members would use sign language to relay messages to protestors outside the window. When it came time to sleep on floors and hunger strike in order to telegraph the seriousness of their mission, their inherent survival skills, born out of circumstance, clicked in.
“It’s like the world always wants us dead,” O’Toole says. “Disabled people know that every day of our lives. The world doesn’t want us around and wants us dead. We live with that reality, so there’s always going to be, ‘Am I going to survive? Am I going to fight? Am I going to push back to be here?’ That’s always true. So if you want to call that anger, I call it drive. You have to be willing to thrive or you’re not going to make it.”
Crip Camp is the portrait of a movement. It’s a time capsule as well, bottling on screen the renegade energy of a period in history that fostered resistance from those whose battle uphill might seem hardest. To wit, one of the documentary’s most moving sequences is footage of demonstrators leaving their wheelchairs and chains to literally crawl up the steps of the Capitol to support the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“Their spirit and resilience reminded me of my father, a joyful man, quick with a laugh, who struggled with M.S. for much of his life,” Michelle Obama said about the members of the movement in a statement. “While his disability didn’t define who he was, it would be foolish to say it didn’t deeply impact him either. This film honors his story and so many others.”