As said by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind.” Many decades before, Camp Jened served as a summer safe space and experimental campground for teens with disabilities. At Camp Jened, these individuals could…just be people. Whether that was partaking in substances, getting involved in carnal flings, or being a place that housed thoughtful conversations, the camp was a self-described utopia removed from the ills of normal society for many who attended no matter if they were or were not physically/mentally afflicted.
But once the camp participants went back into the world, the warmth and experiences of the camp were no longer applicable to their day-to-day interactions. Society saw disabled people as anything but people. It became clear that change in rights and accessibilities for those who identified as disabled would not be garnered by being passive, and would have to be obtained by being active.
Seeing the slightly awkward title of Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution and who is tagged as executive producers in the 44th President of the United States and his First Lady, it would not be out of bounds to even slightly question the slant of the documentary. Would it be heavy on the politics at the expense of storytelling? Offensive to people with disabilities? No and no. Crip Camp is a very measured showcase detailing the ins and outs of a group long forgotten in equality.
Crip Camp is co-directed by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, the latter a disability activist born with spina bifida and a past participant in Camp Jened. His inclusion immediately gives the movie a real authenticity, as LeBrecht is one of many past campers turned activists who are highlighted through interviews and archival footage from the 70’s. One of those campers was Judy Heumann, afflicted with polio as a child. Her journey is detailed from her childhood (the moment where her existence as being “different” was brought up at a young age by another child in her Bronx neighborhood) to being one of the visible public faces behind the passage of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and sit in. The two deftly balance a necessary need for broad information and intimate stories from the campers that serve to connect their plight to the ongoing fights today for equality and inclusion for a myriad of marginalized groups.
The surprising thing about Crip Camp is despite its heavy and naturally dour subject matter, Newnham and LeBrecht choose to highlight anecdotes of joy and appreciation. Sometimes it is small as a last camp night dance party, other times it’s an endearingly clunky remembrance of initial sexual awakening. The common thread throughout is obvious, but needs to be repeated. Disabled people are people like everyone, in need of space, acknowledgement, and the same rights all humans are entitled to.
In a documentary so detailed with information and painful reminders of how far things have come but still need to go, what stands out the most in Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is the aforementioned attention given to those who should have everything to be bitter about finding happiness and good times in the face of despair. In a year full of it, it is a mindset we (certainly myself) can continuously reminds ourselves of.
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