Released Date: March 25, 2020
Rated R for sexual references and some language
2020 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award
2020 Miami Film Festival Zeno Mountain Award
2021 36th Annual International Documentary Association Award, Best Feature
2021 Oscar Nominee
Whenever a bunch of disabled people gets together, it spawns a unique culture. Crip Camp is no exception. A documentary about Camp Jened, which served as the seedbed for the Disability Civil Rights Movement, the bonds these campers made had a global impact. These stories are told in the words of the activists themselves, including Judy Huemann, Jim LeBrecht (who is also the director and producer of this film), and many others. The film includes first-hand footage of the Capitol Crawl, Section 504 protests, and the age of institutionalization. This film is humorous, heart-breaking, victorious, and beautiful.
I’m going to be honest. When I first heard about Crip Camp, I was ecstatic. It was shortly after I was introduced to disability studies and this film was one of the things that introduced me to my history as a disabled person. It is comprised of activists telling their stories interview-style, as well as a compilation of first-hand recordings made by the activists as they participated in these ground-breaking protests and events. For me, it was powerful to watch because it was the first time in my life that I got to see footage of the Disability Civil Rights Movement. And yes, this film made me cry as well as laugh out loud.
Camp Jened was a camp specifically for disabled teenagers that ran from 1951 to 1977. Whereas in the outside world, each of the campers had to deal with discrimination and barriers, Camp Jened was the opposite. Instead of being kept isolated and barred from living life, trying to hide their disabilities as best as they could, campers found independence and connection.
Campers would help each other out. If you couldn’t play soccer with your feet, but you could crawl, then that was how you played. If you couldn’t crawl, then fellow campers would help drag you after the ball. And this was true of everything, not just sports. In this way, Camp Jened created a culture of inclusivity. They would find a way to make things work.
But camp also provided a place for connection. Campers were able to talk about difficult subjects, such as overprotective parents, sexuality, and the struggle for independence. People with disabilities are often not able to be as independent as they would like to be. For example, growing up I didn’t have a deaf-friendly alarm clock. I had to rely on my Mom to wake me up for school. While she did it without complaint for years, I was frustrated because I didn’t have the luxury of getting up when I wanted to. If I wanted to wake up earlier and Mom didn’t want to—I didn’t have a choice. I was seventeen years old when I got a deaf-friendly alarm clock. I found out about it shortly after joining a deaf basketball team. Being able to get up whenever I wanted to was a freedom I’ve never experienced. The freedom of being independent.
Another example of struggling for independence comes from Judy Heumann’s book Being Heumann. She talked about how her mother would always choose her outfits for her, even if Judy wanted to wear something different. But because Judy couldn’t reach her clothes and needed help to get dressed, and her mother was often busy helping Judy’s siblings get ready for school, she often didn’t have a say in what she wanted to wear. While everyone experiences a different version of struggling for independence, it is a common experience throughout the disabled community.
“At camp we tasted freedom for the first time in our lives. Camp is where we had freedom from our parents dressing us, choosing our clothes for us, choosing our food for us, driving us to our friend’s houses. This is something we would have naturally grown out of, like our nondisabled friends, but we live in an inaccessible world, so we have not. We loved our parents, but we relished our freedom from them.Judy Heumann, Being Heumann pages 24-25
“. . . The freedom we felt at camp was not just from our parents and our need for their daily assistance in order to live our lives.
“We were drunk on the freedom of not feeling like a burden, a feeling that was a constant companion in our lives outside of camp.”
Having these kinds of discussions, connecting with other people with disabilities, and experiencing a culture of complete inclusivity, had a lasting impact on these teenagers. As Jim LeBrecht said, “What we saw at camp was that our lives could be better. The fact of the matter is you don’t have anything to strive for if you don’t know it exists.” They wanted the world to be more like Camp Jened. They kept in contact and started forming organizations. That’s how the Disability Civil Rights Movement started. Many of the campers from Jened participated in the Capitol Crawl, Section 504, and many other protests.
These protests, as I have mentioned in previous blog posts, changed the world. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was the first civil rights bill for disabled people in the world. The ADA was based on Section 504, which is an incredible story in itself and the first legislation of its kind in the world as well.
Camp Jened also brought together disabled people from many different backgrounds. Some were kept isolated at home, others were allowed to go to school with non-disabled peers, some were enrolled in special education classes, and others came from institutions.
Institutionalization started around the 1800s. At this time, because so many people were living in poverty, institutions were established to provide housing and access to food and water. But it was also a way to segregate the undesirable person from society. Institutions were intentionally built outside of cities, away from society. But institutions in this age were more focused on education and teaching valuable life skills.
With the 1900s came the rise of eugenics. The quality of institutions dropped as it was believed that people with disabilities would never contribute to society. In Germany, institutions were used as part of a program called Aktion T4, which served as the precursor to the Holocaust. In America, it was common practice for families to abandon disabled children at institutions so as not to deal with the social stigmas surrounding disabilities. Many families would never visit their child, opting instead to tell friends, relatives, and siblings that they lost the baby.
Images from these institutions might be mistaken as photos from the Holocaust. Understaffed and overfilled with patients, many of these facilities were dirty and cramped. Patients were malnourished and abused. Some didn’t even have clothes and most would sit in the dark emitting mournful cries.
Crip Camp includes a news story about an institution called Willowbrook. Footage includes children sleeping on the floor in hallways and bathrooms, naked or nearly naked, some covered in their own feces. Willowbrook was so understaffed that each of the children had three minutes to be fed. Jim LeBrecht recalled that one of the campers at Camp Jened was from Willowbrook.
Ending institutionalization was also a huge part of the Disability Civil Rights Movement. Today, institutions still exist, but there are a very limited number of them. In addition, lot more laws and government oversight are in place to make sure they are healthy and safe places. It helps that we live now in a society that no longer seeks to segregate disabled people from nondisabled people.
Crip Camp is an amazing and powerful film that shows a side of history most don’t know. Currently, it is only available on Netflix. It has been nominated for the 2021 Oscars, which will be taking place one week from today. There have only been two Oscars awarded to disabled people to date. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the third. There is a huge lack of disabled representation in films and this goes a long way in the fight for visibility.
This means of all the roles in Hollywood .001% are played by disabled actors. Even though the disabled community is the largest minority on the planet, we are still invisible. And we want more than representation, we want authenticity. We don’t want to be represented by discriminatory stereotypes or by able-bodied actors. We want to be shown as ourselves and as people because that is who we are. When people see who we are and what we are capable of, barriers start burning down.
One last thing that I will talk about is how Crip Camp talks about sexuality. Too often, people with disabilities are not expected to be in relationships or be sexual. We are predominately seen as disabilities, not as people. One of the campers in the film talks about her various relationships, including having an affair with the bus driver. Later she had to go to the hospital for stomach pains. The doctor, assuming it couldn’t be anything other than appendicitis, operated on her. The appendix was healthy, however, and the stomach pains persisted. Only after the doctor had exhausted all other options, did he realize that the camper had an STD. It never crossed his mind that a disabled person could be sexually active.
Because so many people share the same perspective as this doctor, it was one of the most powerful moments of the film. It challenges everything audiences think they know about disabilities.
Camp Jened doesn’t just represent the past. It also represents the future.
Who do you hope wins wins at the Oscars this year? Comment below and let me know!