It was 1971 in Woodstock, New York when a rickety summer camp for disabled teenagers catalysed the beginning of a groundbreaking revolution, subsequently inspiring a landmark disability rights movement. These teenagers grew up to help forge a path towards equality and political change for disabled people across the United States. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is a remarkable story told by Nicole Newnham and former camper Jim LeBrecht.
This documentary illustrates the journey from a small camp for disabled teenagers to a leading movement that manifested systematic change, showcasing an in-depth and nuanced form of storytelling, rather than an airbrushed portrait of an underrepresented community. This film focuses on the campers turned activists who fought for accessibility legislation, with interviews from Larry Allison, Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and Stephen Hofmann. The directorial use of vintage footage from Camp Janed allows audiences to transcend through the screen, immersing us in the free-spirited and Woodstock-esque vibes of the camp. The teens smoke and flirt, discussing their shared experiences with each other as young disabled people. It is in the first Act, where we encounter one memorable scene where the teens lament the suffocating overprotectiveness of their parents.
These teenagers grew up and decided enough was enough. They used their newfound energy and empowerment to grapple with the systematic injustices inflicted upon them, demanding political change. We hear from the captivating Judy Heumann, a former counsellor of the camp and central figure of the movement. During one of the film’s most profound moments, Judy refuses to be grateful for the basic right of an accessible bathroom. This poignant scene made my lip quiver, my throat scratchy, and my eyes wet. Having grown up hard of hearing and diagnosed with deteriorating eyesight at the age of 14, I was always made to feel like I should be thankful for the basic accommodations afforded to me. Judy’s words resonated with me and validated me as a disabled person entitled to fundamental rights and opportunities. The validation I felt is exactly why the disability movement should be taught in schools, so that disabled children do not grow up feeling unseen and uninspired.
Crip Camp is a film that takes small steps to remind us of the courageous leaps and bounds made by these activists. We witness rousing scenes of Black Panthers and LGBTQ+ activists rallying alongside the disabled activists in an overarching fight for equality. I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King‘s timeless quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This film shines a spotlight on the profound and structural change that can be achieved through community and empowers a new generation of young disabled people to carry on the fight. Fifty years later, and access remains a widespread issue both in the USA and the U.K. In recent news, many disability groups have filed complaints about COVID-19 related discrimination, with our own government failing to provide sign language interpreters for the daily coronavirus briefings.
Newham and LeBrecht manage to balance anger with humour, introducing us to an array of three-dimensional campers, campers who are sexual, insightful, and funny individuals. I only wish I saw this when I was young and unsure about my identity, as someone who once flinched at the word ‘disabled’. This documentary enlightened me, reminded me of those before me, and empowered me to continue fighting for a better world. Crip Camp is a necessary education, and one that will stay with you, make your blood boil, and make you smile.