It was the summer of Woodstock, and just up the Catskills from the revolutionary Bethel (Saugerties) festival of art and music, Jim LeBrecht was encountering people just like himself, in large numbers, for the first time.
He was born with Spina Bifida, and “the barriers” to his life were “all over the place,” even in New York. But at this long-established summer camp, Camp Jened, which had found its true purpose just a few summers before, barriers disappeared, young people like himself experienced freedom, fun and the camaraderie of a shared struggle — being disabled.
They met, talked and played in a camp “filled with disabled people, run by hippies.”
And in this “Utopian” atmosphere, they fell in love, found common purpose and changed their outlook on what the world be could like.
“This camp changed the world,” declares LeBrecht, a veteran sound designer for theater and sound mixer for movies, co-director of “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.”
That’s a bold claim for a film you’re both in and co-directed. But damned if “Crip Camp” doesn’t prove that thesis in 100 upbeat, focused and outspoken minutes. It’s a feel-great movie arriving at just the time we could use one.
It was a project that spun out of “the social experimentation of the times,” then-director Larry Allison remembered (in an archival interview). Camp Jened was a place where polio survivors, “CP’s” (cerebral palsy) and assorted paraplegics, quadriplegic teens, deaf and otherwise “disabled” kids could be in a place where they weren’t “freaks.”
“At camp, everybody had something going on with their body. It was no big deal.”
And the realization that life didn’t have to be a losing struggle against unfriendly people and unfriendly buildings, streets without ramps and train stations without elevators, was Earth shattering for these young people.
Led by camp alumnus Judy Heumann, who sued first New York state and then led sit-ins across the country, they proceeded to “change the world.”
Doubt that phrase at your own peril, even if you’re too young to remember an America before The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, and the other laws and fiercely resisted progress that preceded it.
Judy is our tour guide through many of those years, here, but other alumni speak up and talk of how their lives changed, camp counselors speak of what they experienced at Camp Jened and how they “brought that home with me” to the Deep South, or wherever, after that touchstone summer.
LeBrecht was involved with videotaping (in black and white) the events of that summer, and the film uses that footage, along with other camp movies, and decades of archival TV news coverage of Disabled in Action activism — wheelchair-bound protestors shutting down streets, closing government buildings, getting their voices heard.
“Crip Camp” underlines and identifies the alumni, a tiny, dedicated and networked (pre-Internet) band who drove this movement for 20 years until ADA became the law of the land, “equal access” because the default position of America and the pro forma discrimination, segregation and even institutionalization of the “Differently-abled” was beaten back.
In these, America’s darkest days since the Vietnam War, “Crip Camp” is an inspiring, upbeat shaft of light and a sobering reminder that whatever conservatives want to say about the ’60s, every now and then, hippies changed America, and helped America change the world.
MPAA Rating: R for some language including sexual references
Cast: Judy Heumann, Jim LeBrecht, Larry Allison, Lionel Woodyard, Denise Sherer Jacobson, many others
Credits: Directed by Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. A Netflix Original.
Running time: 1:46