Crip Camp: Lessons from a Powerful Documentary

By Nora Lowe

Walking around Byram Hills High School, students pass and use multiple elevators and ramps. Our school is largely wheelchair accessible, and I, and surely many other students, always viewed it as a given. We live in an era and area in which disabled individuals have access to many of the same locations and opportunities as those who are abled.

We rarely recall a time when this wasn’t a certainty.

This year, Netflix released a documentary touted as a “raucous odyssey” by NPR, and “the sort of movie that might help rouse people out of despair and into the good fight” by Vanity Fair. Crip Camp is a profoundly inspirational and educational documentary that will likely change the way you perceive today’s “norms,” as well as help you understand the tremendous mobilization and organization of a group that had been overlooked by a society that wasn’t designed for them.

This documentary was written and co-produced by Nicole Newnham, an Emmy-winning film producer, and James LeBrecht, her long time sound designer and also a disability rights activist. Barack and Michelle Obama both acted as executive producers. Black and white footage is beautifully intertwined with contemporary interviews to paint a complete picture of how a group of summer campers rallied together to spark large-scale change. Camp Jened, the location from which the ensuing events stemmed, was considered a trailblazer in that it provided a chance for young adults with a range of disabilities to indulge in the traditional American summer camp experience. According to the movie’s website (cripcamp.com), “Jened was their freewheeling Utopia, a place with summertime sports, smoking and make-out sessions awaiting everyone, and campers experienced liberation and full inclusion as human beings.”

For the majority of campers, the sense of inclusion and freedom was a luxury, and this taste of independence was something they carried with them for the rest of their lives. The experience would ultimately spark a revolution in activism. As Lebrecht, co-producer and Jened attendee, notes, “What we saw at that camp was that our lives could be better. The fact of the matter is that you don’t have anything to strive for if you don’t know that it exists.”

Many of the campers later moved to California, where they reconnected. In fact, “Berkeley in the 1970s was a remarkable crucible of disability rights activism, driven by the principle that people with disabilities should be integrated into society rather than housed in institutions and treated as patients first and foremost” (Berkeley.edu). 

Judith Heumann, a Jened camper, led her peers in the fight towards societal acceptance and legislative change. At a Joint House-Senate Hearing in 1988, she gave a powerful and composed testimony. She addressed opponents who persistently tried to block the Rehabilitation Act from passing, highlighting their lack of empathy by saying “And I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement when I don’t think you understand what we’re talking about.”

In Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, Heumann recalls that her time at Jened sparked a career in activism, saying that “We helped empower each other. It was allowing us to recognize that the status quo was not what it needed to be.”

In 1972, Richard Nixon vetoed their legislation, claiming that it was economically infeasible to make America accessible. Camp Jened veterans and like-minded groups decided to host a demonstration. They traveled to New York City and blocked traffic. An archived New York Times article from November of 1972 describes how “14 protesters…closed off Madison Avenue at 45th Street for 55 minutes during the evening rush hours, snarled traffic throughout the area.”

In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was passed, which prohibited discrimination against the disabled by employers when they were qualified for the position. But it wasn’t enforced. Section 504, which specified that federally funded, public institutions needed to become accessible for the disabled, was being generally overlooked, and its implementation greatly delayed. Four years later, the Camp Jened veterans received a call to action from Heumann. 

The National Museum of American History reports that “For 25 days in April 1977, a group of roughly 150 disability rights activists took over the fourth floor of a federal building in San Francisco. They would not leave, they said, until President Jimmy Carter’s administration agreed to implement a four-year-old law protecting the rights of people with disabilities.” The group participated in this peaceful act of civil disobedience for nearly a month. And it wasn’t easy. In an effort to end the protest, the federal government cut the building’s water and power. One protester noted that “discomfort and anxiety was the order of our day to day existence. Everyone faced these questions, How can I get my meds? Where will I sleep? What about food?” The disabled participants in the protest endured a lack of medical supplies and assistance.

The documentary strings together available footage that shows the ingenuity of the sit in participants. For example, when the telephone lines were cut, deaf individuals used sign language to communicate with people on the outside of the building to acquire necessary resources. The Black Panthers even partnered with the activists, bringing them hot meals. Though the primary sources are limited, the documentary perfectly incorporates accounts from surviving sit in members to paint a complete picture.

Their endurance prompted the regulations to ultimately be signed, and conditions for America’s disabled population were somewhat improved, but the fight wasn’t over, because Section 504 only applied to federal property. 

Two decades later, activists wanted to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act to extend Section 504 to virtually all of America, not just federally-funded areas. In reaction to the civil rights law being stalled in the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation, passionate protesters hosted another act of peaceful rebellion. As the Department of Administration Council on Developmental Disabilities records, “Sixty protesters with disabilities cast aside their wheelchairs, crutches and walkers to crawl or drag themselves, step by step, up the 78 marble stairs of the Capitol’s West Front.” In what became known as the Capitol Crawl, protesters of all ages sent a clear message to the government: They were not going to rest until the disabled, a too-long marginalized group, were legally granted respect and an acknowledgment that they deserved a better quality of life. In July of 1990, the ADA was signed into law.

However, as Denise Sherer Jacobson, a former Jened camper and disability activist, aptly observes, “The ADA was a wonderful achievement. But it was only the tip of the iceberg. You can pass a law but until you can change society’s attitudes, that law won’t mean much.” 

Students learn about the civil rights movement for Black Americans and Queer Americans, but not for disabled Americans. This documentary is worthwhile to watch because it discusses an extremely important topic that is often overlooked in schools. Its purpose isn’t to evoke pity or discomfort, but rather to describe how a small group of people demanded respect for themselves and others facing the same adversity.