'Crip Camp' subjects have become disability rights activists

Camp Jened put on summer programs exclusively for people with disabilities. Photo courtesy of Netflix
Camp Jened put on summer programs exclusively for people with disabilities. Photo courtesy of Netflix

LOS ANGELES, March 25 (UPI) -- The documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution begins by chronicling a summer at Camp Jened, a Rock Hill, N.Y., camp that serves people with disabilities. In catching up with campers, directors Jim Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham found some Jened veterans were key activists in the disability rights movement.

Judy Heumann went to Camp Jened in the early '70s. In 1977, she led a sit-in at the Health, Education and Welfare office in San Francisco, Calif., to demand Secretary Joseph Califano finalize Section 504 of 1973's Rehabilitation Act. Without 504, nothing prohibited public institutions, universities or federal agencies from discriminating against disabled people.


After 25 days of the sit-in, Califano completed Section 504. Heumann next turned her attention to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990. The ADA requires accessibility options for people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Lebrecht went to Camp Jened with Heumann.

"I had a crush on her at the age of 15," Lebrecht told UPI in a phone interview. "She was very powerful and she was very persuasive."


Lebrecht did not become aware of Heumann's political activism until later in life. In profiling her fight for rights for the disabled, Lebrecht recognized how Heumann and other activists forced the establishment to listen. By gathering disabled people in the HEW office, she forced politicians to see them.

"When people aren't listening, you have to find different ways to make it impossible for them to ignore you," Lebrecht said. "They realize that you're going to make them uncomfortable because they're making your life impossible."

Former Camp Jened campers joined the sit-in and made Califano uncomfortable by going on a hunger strike. Lebrecht articulates in the film the risks involved with sitting in for days and weeks, notably quadriplegics unable to turn themselves over during the night, people separated from their caretakers and people without backup ventilators and catheters.

Newnham saw that disabled people were engaged in other social justice movements. The disabled people in the women's movement and the Civil Rights Movement were able to unite them with the disability rights movement.

"The disability rights movement gained steam partially because it was sitting at the intersection of all these different communities," Newnham said. "We hope that that model -- of people coming together across difference and refusing to accept oppression or inequity -- serves as a model for how you might move forward today."


Camp Jened was in session from the '60s until 1977, and it catered to campers excluded from other activities. Lebrecht says in the film that the Cub Scouts would not let him join. He spent four years at Jened, three as a camper and one working in the kitchen.

The term "crip camp" is never said in the film. Lebrecht says the disabled community uses the term "crip" among itself to reclaim an insult that abled people might use against them.

"It also gave us a pretty good shorthand," Lebrecht said. "Instead of saying, 'Do you know if there's any handicapped parking spots outside the movie theater?' You'd say, 'Do you know there are any crip spots outside that movie theater?'"

Crip Camp is Lebrecht's first film as a director. He has worked as a sound designer and mixer since 1990. He mixed Newnham's three previous films and pitched her ideas for films they could do to better represent the disabled community.

"When he showed me the pictures of Camp Jened, I felt like I was going down a rabbit hole into another world," Newnham said. "Then he told me there might be footage out there. We tracked it down to see if there was some way that we could filmically bring Camp Jened back to life."


The People's Video Theater, a group of local videographers, spent a summer filming Camp Jened for a local news segment about an outbreak of crabs when the sexually transmitted disease spread at the camp. Lebrecht and Newnham helped them digitize their footage, with which the filmmakers were able to recreate a summer at Camp Jened.

Newnham hopes she and Lebrecht can use the People's Video Theater footage to tell other stories intersecting with the disability movement.

"They have amazing footage of working in Greenwich Village and working in the women's rights movement," Newnham said. "They actually shot that footage that you saw in our film of what it looked like to try to take public transportation at the time back in New York."

The filmmakers followed up with other Camp Jened veterans besides Heumann. Neil Jacobson and Denise Sherer fell in love at Camp Jened and got married. Newnham feels more of their story could be told in another film.

"Neil Jacobson became a vice president of Wells Fargo and he and Denise adopted a child," Newnham said. "They were fighting a lot of discrimination about adopting a child as parents with disabilities. There's just a lot of beautiful stories in how people continued to build their chosen lives post Camp Jened."


Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution premieres Wednesday on Netflix.

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