Note: This is a re-post of our Crip Camp review from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The film is now playing on Netflix.
If you’ve ridden public transportation recently, or gone to a public school, or maybe even visited a mall, you’ve no doubt noticed elevators, ramps, and other modes of access to those with disabilities. You may also have taken these inclusions for granted. Aren’t they just always there? Someone probably just decided it was a good idea to make it easier for the disabled to ride the subway or go to school, right? Definitely not. Wide accessibility for the disabled was a hard-fought battle that took decades, and the new Netflix documentary Crip Camp shines a light on the individuals who spent most of their adult lives fighting for basic human rights. It’s a fight that never should have had to happen in the first place, but Crip Camp is a truly eye opening chronicle of how this battle was won through years of political activism, organization, and old fashioned perseverance—oftentimes with no end in sight.
As the title suggests, the beginning of Crip Camp focuses on a camp. The film uses tremendously candid archival footage to tell the story of Camp Jened, which was a camp for disabled teens that was widely used in the 1970s. We get to know many of the campers and counselors through this stunning footage from the summer of 1971, plus new present day interviews with the individuals who were there. What’s most striking here isn’t just that the camp was fun (it was) or that it allowed those who feel “different” in everyday life to feel a bit more “normal” (it did), but Camp Jened was truly a place where teenagers could be teenagers. There’s smoking, complaining about parents, makeout sessions in the woods, and even an outbreak of crabs. It’s deeply disarming, and goes a long way towards showing how abled individuals both consciously and subconsciously designate the disabled as “other,” and don’t consider that they, too, have feelings of loneliness, joy, and romantic love, and sometimes just want the freedom to be alone.
Crip Camp is particularly eye opening in its first act. As an able-bodied individual, I take for granted pretty much every aspect of my daily life. I was deeply moved when, during a group session at Camp Jened, a young woman who has tremendous trouble speaking clearly was given the patience and time to be heard. Her intense struggle to merely express her feelings was no doubt waved away by many throughout her life who might cut her off and instead try to intuit what she wanted/needed/felt. But surrounded by other disabled individuals, they gave her all the time she needed to vocalize her thoughts, and listened intently. Her feelings and opinions have value.
After the summer at camp ended, many of these same individuals—inspired by their time together, and expressing their hopes and desires to merely have access to the same places and careers that others have—began to formally organize. Chief among them was Judy Heumann, who led the charge for disabled rights, taking point in historic protests—some that lasted close to a month—in order to convince the government to pass legislation that doesn’t discriminate against disabled individuals. As we see through more fantastic archival footage, the government stalls and hems and haws, claiming there’s simply no feasible way to financially renovate facilities so that elevators, ramps, etc. make them accessible. It’s too expensive, and president Richard Nixon literally says, “How many individuals will actually use these anyway?”
Strikingly, this isn’t merely the Nixon administration that stonewalls legislation, but it continues on through the Jimmy Carter administration and of course Reagan. The culmination of the film is the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed by George H.W. Bush in 1990, nearly two decades after Heumann and others began formally lobbying the government to recognize their basic human rights.
Crimp Camp is indeed an activist story about political organizing, and shines a light on the brutal, long process it takes to actually effect change. Heumman has essentially spent her entire adult life fighting for rights like the abilitiy to use a restroom in a public place, which is not only insane but tremendously dehumanizing. One can imagine giving up that fight at a number of turns, but Heumann’s determination—and her ability to inspire those around her—makes her a real-life superhero. I’m ashamed I didn’t know her name until seeing this documentary, but I do hope her enormous influence and sacrifice become more widely recognized with the film’s release.
Directors Nicole Newnham and Jim Lebrecht (himself a former camper) structure the film well, drawing clear lines between the time at camp to the organizing and protests that actually effect change. This is the second Netflix documentary from executive producers Michelle and Barack Obama after last year’s terrific American Factory, and they’re now 2 for 2 in my book for shepherding documentaries that are not only compelling, but also enlightening and inspiring.
Documentaries can inform, entertain, and evoke empathy, but the best ask the viewer to look inward and possibly effect some kind of significant personal change. Crip Camp certainly fits that bill, as it asks the able-bodied to look past our own preconceived notions, misconceptions, and straight-up ignorance to consider the disabled not as a minority group, but as individual human beings with thoughts, feelings, and passions all their own. That these individuals strove again and again in the face of adversity to demand change, to demand basic human rights, and kept going when those in power continually told them “No” is as inspiring a story as I’ve ever seen, but it’s also vital and resonant to the world we live in today. Crip Camp is a deeply moving chronicle of social change brought on by the actions of a small group of individuals, persevering over decades.