Ramped entrances, handicap bathroom stalls and automatic doors are a natural part of our current lives, but each and every one of these had to be fought for by the people who needed them. Nicole Newham and James Lebrecht’s Crip Camp uses a summer camp to launch the fighters in the disability rights movement forward.
Camp Jened in upstate New York was the only camp of its kind. Not only was it run by hippies just down the road from Woodstock, but it was a summer camp for the disabled. Started by Larry Allison, the camp is designed to give kids with a gamut of varying disabilities, the opportunity to have fun and be included at a summer camp.
Most of the campers had been excluded from society and had not had the opportunities that many other kids of their age get to have. At Camp Jened, the campers partake in the normal camp activities, including swimming, baseball and music and get to experience the same camp features as drinking, smoking and sexual encounters.
The camp acts as a jumping off point for the disability inclusion movement, spearheaded by Judy Huemann. Bound to a wheelchair due to polio and acting as a camp counselor, Judy becomes the media spokesperson to enforce article 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act would require businesses to have accessibility for disabled individuals. It was signed into law, but was not being enforced.
The fight for the enforcement of 504 turns into the crux of the documentary’s content as a group of young disabled protesters stage sit-ins, meet with congresspeople and demand the world take their needs into account. The film also intersperses archival footage of the fight for 504 with the serious discussions the campers would have about what their life is like as a disabled person.
The true marvel of this documentary comes in the form of personality. These disabled people are not idealized and deified, but shown as the human people with normal desires like everyone else. Particularly, married couple Denise Sherer Jacobsen and Neil Jacobsen, both with cerebral palsy, talk about their first sexual encounters and Denise talks about her bout with gonorrhea that prefaced her getting a masters degree in human sexuality.
Other campers are shown as protesters and advocates, while others become sound engineers and perform at drag shows. The struggles all these people go through is not defined by their disability, but their desire to move past their disability and be seen as human. Additionally, race and gender are never taken into consideration (or at least discussed) in the disabled community. When you need help to shower and use the bathroom, other discriminatory factors fall by the wayside.
The fight for 504 proves frustrating for the community and the viewer as the usual political ineptitude and double-talk prioritize other factors. Special mention is given to ABC San Francisco reporter Evan White, who almost exclusively covered the sit-ins and expanded the national media coverage.
Crip Camp shows what can happen when a filmmaker respects a subject different from themselves without infantizing their struggles. Showing the real people behind the disability gives real hope for the world to change their viewpoints.