Skip to main content

'Crip Camp' Celebrates a Disability Revolution

By Reveca Torres

Judy Heumann, featured in Jim Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham's 'Crip Camp,; which premieres March 25 on Netflix. Courtesy of Netflix

Who would've thought that summer camp could lead to a movement that has made a significant impact in the USA and worldwide? In the early 1970s, a group of teenagers with disabilities got off the bus at Camp Jened in upstate New York, not realizing this would be a transformative experience. They were in awe to see so many wheelchairs in one place. At Camp Jened there was music, drugs and sex. It felt like freedom in every sense of the word—freedom from their families, from an oppressive society and from their own self-doubt. Out of this summer utopia, many activists were born, and over the next four decades they worked tirelessly to make change. Nonetheless, the history of disabled Americans is not widely known.

One of these campers-turned-disability rights advocates was Jim Lebrecht, founder of the audio postproduction house Berkeley Sound Artists. He has worked on three documentary films with filmmaker Nicole Newnham and together they tell the story of Camp Jened, following the teenagers into adulthood and unveiling the disability rights movement in Crip Camp, which premieres March 25 on Netflix.

Several years ago, Newnham and Lebrecht started discussing collaborating on a disability-related film that told a story from within the community. Newnham does not identify as a person with a disability, and she was aware that there were many things she didn’t know. "When Jim mentioned the story of the camp—this vivid description of Camp Jened as this amazing hippie Valhalla where people experienced the fullness of themselves, and that free-living culture that was the 1970s—that showed me I viewed people with disabilities in a very limited way," she admits. "Maybe the most transformational thing for me was having that lived experience of someone with a disability, and having Jim’s personal perspective as a way into the story, to be the true north star that guided us all the way through the process."

While still figuring out the structure of the film, Executive Producer Howard Gertler read about Higher Ground Productions and Barack and Michelle Obama’s mission. It felt like a great fit because the story is a powerful, untold story from a marginalized community celebrating grassroots organizing and people coming together to create a better world. They sent a clip reel to Higher Ground Productions Co-Head Priya Swaminathan, who quickly set up a meeting. After looking at footage and talking about the vision, Swaminathan called right from the parking lot and said, "We would really love to partner with you, and the President and Mrs. Obama feel the same way." Newnham says it "was probably one of the most extraordinary days of our lives. We felt really moved that both of them personally had a commitment and connection to the story and disability rights. Higher Ground really rolled up their sleeves and worked with us collaboratively on the project all the way through."

Changemaker Music

If you are a person with a disability, maybe there is skepticism that this movie will portray people with disabilities authentically. Your past experiences have you waiting to be disappointed as the film introduces Jim, who was born with spina bifida, trying to fit in, and going to Camp Jened. Just a few minutes in, there’s a sudden high note from a guitar that gets your attention—you recognize the song and know what you're about to watch is about freedom and revolution. It is obvious that the music in this film was very important and carefully curated, setting the tone for the work of these young disability advocates—the self-exploration, liberation, struggle, resilience and joy. "Having this be partially my story and being a huge music lover, I certainly was suggesting certain pieces of music that might really work well in spots," Lebrecht recalls. "So, you know, for me, 'For What It’s Worth,’ by Buffalo Springfield—I get goosebumps just saying the title.”

Choosing the music became a collaborative process, placing importance on finding songs from that era—"songs that brought a certain nostalgia from those formative places and times of your youth, where you come together with friends but you can never really return to," says Newnham. "Freedom and pride were two things that we definitely wanted to try to get across with the music choices. One of the first songs that I brought to the table was Richie Havens' 'Freedom,' from [the Woodstock soundtrack]. I thought, okay, this is the era of Woodstock, I'm going to sit down and listen to the Woodstock soundtrack. That song came on and you could just completely feel how the energy matched the energy you feel when you look at the Camp Jened footage and even the still photos. You can see that absolute, utter joy and freedom there."

Youth In Activism

Camp Jened provided teens a unique opportunity for connection and space to express feelings of anger or isolation, hopes and dreams, and especially to feel like they belonged. Crip Camp takes us through their journey to becoming leaders in a civil rights movement. Particularly we get to know Judy Heumann, who had polio as a child, uses a wheelchair and was an outgoing counselor at Camp Jened. We watch her grow into a voice for the disability community—organizing actions, helping establish the Independent Living movement, and staging a 28-day sit-in that pushed for regulations regarding Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Her passion for change and social justice is invigorating; one can hope that youth with disabilities will not take her legacy for granted.

The future of connection and taking action is in a digital world through social media and online platforms. There are parallels in that "people today are meeting up online, and that’s a space that can be very accessible in a way that physical gatherings are not," says Newnham. "A lot of disability justice activists have not only been gathering online but actually organizing actions online. It's interesting to see the ways in which some of that same spirit of coming together, witnessing each other's truths and finding ways to collaborate that you see in the 504 sit-in is actually happening in a really dynamic, exciting way online today."

With the goal to engage and provide tools for the next generation, the team developed a robust impact campaign with plans to gather virtually or in-person, "but what we've been hearing is that for a lot of activists that we've met, knowing about the history really had a profound effect on their lives," says Lebrecht. "They love their history."

Given A History

The general population has maybe heard of Judy Heumann or the Section 504 sit-in but really doesn’t know that disabled Americans have a vibrant history. Unfortunately, it is history that isn’t taught in schools; even those with disabilities may not learn our history unless we make an effort or major in one of the few disability studies programs available. In the trajectory of making the film, it became evident how important telling the history of the disability movement was. Newnham was connected to a Global Disability Rights professor who told her, "If you are not given a history, then it's hard to imagine a future." Newnham recalls. "We were blown away by how discarded this history has been. Finding the archival footage was really difficult because a lot of the material had never been cataloged. It had been given by organizations or activists to various archives who hadn’t even bothered to go through the boxes and itemize them. We had to scrap together the scenes of the 504 sit-in from little fragments here and there."

As the directors saw the pieces come together, they realized the impact the history in the film could have on the disability community—and even more so for those who don't even realize this is a part of our country's past. "For people to know this is their legacy, this is their heritage, this is one of the great accomplishments of the US and one of the greatest gifts the US has given to the world, to know that it was done by young people I think will fuel more activism in the future," Newnham maintains.

Nicole Newnham and Jim Lebrecht, makers of 'Crip Camp.' Courtesy of Netflix

Imagining A Future

Heumann was recently interviewed by The Daily Show's Trevor Noah to promote her book Being Heumann and Crip Camp. She said that regardless of all we've accomplished in the disability community, what we really need now is to have pride. Understandably, it can be difficult to develop pride if disability is seen as something negative or shameful by society.

"I know how motivating it was when I started realizing that this was something not to be embarrassed about," Lebrecht recalls. "I remember being young and rolling my chair in White Plains, New York, and if I saw somebody in a wheelchair, we averted our eyes. And today, especially at Berkeley, you feel like everybody you see with an obvious disability is your brother or sister. So you say hello." He emphasizes that it's okay to be part of this community and "if people start realizing that there is disability culture—our artists and our writers and our filmmakers—that there is so much to celebrate, and to delete the negative and overused tropes around disability, then we can really spark a lot more films and projects."

I've often cringed at films with tired disability tropes and cliché characters. Surprisingly, I don't recall ever watching a film and feeling really proud of being a person with a disability and really proud of the work my peers have done in the disability rights movement until I watched Crip Camp. I can only assume that Jim Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham are also proud of what they've created and excited to see how it will create a space for many to make change.

Reveca Torres is an artist, filmmaker and disability advocate. She is founder of BACKBONES, co-director of ReelAbilities Film Festival Chicago and a 2020 IDA Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow.