Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

Activism -
Disability -
Crip Camp shows underdogs winning their rights
Nicole Newnham,
James Lebrecht
James Lebrecht,
Nicole Newnham
Larry Allison,
Dennis Billups,
HolLynn D'Lil,
Judith Heumann,
Denise Sherer Jacobson,
Lionel Je'Woodyard,
James Lebrecht,
Evan White
Run time
146 minutes
Higher Ground Productions
Distribution Date
Mar 25, 2020
Winner U.S. Documentary - Sundance Audience Award (2020)

Crip Camp, directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, shares the stories of a few campers who attended Camp Jened, a unique summer camp for differently abled teens. Though the documentary begins with adventures at a summer camp, the focus isn’t really on the days spent playing games, making music, and giggling over camp drama. Rather, Crip Camp tells the story of five activists who met at Camp Jened and grew up to fight for the right to live in a more accessible America: Larry Allison, Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and Stephen Hofmann.  

We can all agree that dealing with body image and an increasing need for privacy are both potential hallmarks of being a teenager. In Crip Camp, the teenagers with disabilities at Camp Jened are viscerally honest about what that experience looks like for them. Many of the campers are isolated growing up, cut out of public schools, told that their wheelchairs make them fire hazards, and have to constantly navigate a world that refuses to accommodate them. 

But at Camp Jened, the kids are boisterous and vivacious. They don’t need anyone’s pity or condescension. Camp Jened, an idyllic summer camp in the Catskills, run by hippies through the 60s, served as a launch pad for kids who were otherwise sidelined by the world – teaching them that their words and their needs mattered.

“The wild thing is this camp changed the world, and nobody knows this story,” LeBrecht, who was also a camper at Jened, says early in the film. The documentary starts with a heart-warming description of summers at camp, but quickly zooms out of the camp world and into the real world, following several of the campers as they refuse to accept the limits society has placed on them. 

One of the campers, Judy Heumann, shines through early on with a talent for organization, something we note when she is charged with planning dinner at the camp. She makes sure that each camper is involved in the conversation. We see Heumann later as she goes on to make history with her activism, leading sit-ins and protests on both coasts of America. It doesn’t stop there. She also pushed for policies – and enforcement to back those policies up – that ensured independence and inclusion for people with disabilities across the country. 

This film isn’t a textbook. Viewers will have to do more research if they want details on the various campaigns, including the 504 Occupation, a nearly month-long occupation Heumann and other activists staged in San Francisco. However, the documentary will give viewers a very real appreciation of the lengths to which these activists were willing to go to secure their basic rights. It also highlights how particularly primed they were to do exactly this kind of work, because of their lifelong experiences living with a disability in an inaccessible world. When the FBI cut their phone lines early into the occupation, activists who are hearing impaired stepped up to maintain communication with the outside world via other communication methods. The fact that they’d been forced to adapt to an unyielding world for their entire lives made these activists perfectly suited to wait out the government. 

This documentary is a very important record of a piece of the civil rights movement that not everyone learns. I know I didn’t. Growing up, I looked for the gentle slopes on the corner of sidewalks for a fun little dip when I was riding my bike. It didn’t occur to me that something as simple as a curb cut could be a mark of equal opportunity for all citizens. It took decades of work to ensure wheelchair users could navigate cities or get to their jobs, that public schools were truly inclusive of all children, and that businesses couldn’t discriminate in their hiring processes. And I just didn’t know about any of it. 

Crip Camp is a very well-made documentary that juxtaposes footage of the campers as teens and as activists with contemporary interviews to emphasize the effect of the summers they spent together. We also see the beautiful original footage from the camp in the 1960s. But the film’s greatest value lies in the way it will help viewers understand the struggles their peers face – whether they live with a disability or not. Camp Jened’s director, Larry Allison, was intentional about building a world of freedom and accessibility for his campers, a foundation they used to later change the world. And it is on those of us who have never faced accessibility issues to listen to and learn from those who are being excluded. 

The interwoven interviews in this documentary, which help humanize the campers whose work changed thousands of lives, end with an emotional reunion at the site of the now empty Camp Jened. Allison lays out our collective responsibility and it lingers with me still. “The problem did not exist with people with disabilities. The problem existed with people that didn’t have disabilities. It was our problem, so it was important for us to change.

About the Contributor

Shelbi Polk is a Narrative Muse Editor and Copywriter and freelance writer based in North Carolina. Her money mainly goes to books and travel, with some set aside for supporting local musicians. She’s also working on her first book, in between daydreams about the next trip she hopes to take – biking between towns in Eastern Europe!