Movie Report: Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

Genre: Documentary
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

Summary
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.

“At the camp you could do anything that you thought you wanted to do. You wouldn’t be picked to be on a team back home. But at Jened, you had to go up to bat!”

Lionel Je’ Woodyard, Camp Jened Counselor

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.

“It was so funky. But it was a utopia! When we were there, there was no outside world.”

Denise Sherer Jacobson, Camper

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.

This is my current alarm clock. It comes with a special vibrator that goes under the mattress.
Instead of using sound, I am awakened by vibrations.

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.
“. . . 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.”

Judy Heumann, Being Heumann pages 24-25

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.

“I remember being in the dining hall and this guy comes in. He was basically eating as much as he could. He was just… kept on shoveling it in until the point where he threw up. It was kind of like somebody coming in from the wild.”

Jim LeBrecht

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.

“Even though [more than] 20% of the population has a disability, 2% of roles in Hollywood are for disabled characters and of that 2%, only 5% are played by people with disabilities. The rest are played by actors without disabilities.”

Marlee Matlin, 2017 Oscar for Best Actress
Marlee Matlin is an American actress, author, and Deaf activist

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!

Disability History, Part 3

Aktion T4 and the Holocaust

Today’s post is near and dear to my heart. It is a great example of the disabled community being silenced as almost no one has been taught about the Aktion T4 program. The T4 program was a political mass murder campaign by involuntary euthanasia, which ended up serving as the precursor to the Holocaust. The history that I’ve compiled for this week is, and should be, shocking. As such, I feel that I need to put a warning here that this post will talk about some of the horrendous things that occurred before and during WWII which include: mass murder, eugenics, abortion, forced sterilization, assisted suicide, and the torture of children. I encourage readers to decide for themselves if they would like to engage in this material.

The early 1900s was a dark time for those with disabilities. In addition to facing discrimination in employment, education, architecture, it was also the age of eugenics. This meant that scientists and politicians were trying to shape the human race by eliminating undesirable characteristics. Those with disabilities were especially targeted. In America, new laws passed such as the “ugly laws” which prohibited the appearance of people who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object (1).” Another example is sterilization laws, which allowed disabled people to be sterilized against their consent. America was not the only country to do this. Sterilization laws were also in effect all over Europe. In the Deaf community, oralism (communicating by voice rather than by sign language) was enforced. Deaf teachers were fired while deaf students were punished if they signed. American Sign Language was nearly wiped out of existence. Alexander Graham Bell, largely known for creating the first telephone, used his fame to push for laws that would prohibit Deaf people from marrying or having children.

The purpose behind these laws was to further segregate disabled people from non-disabled people. In addition, they pushed disabled people to fit into the status quo. This discrimination and segregation—particularly the sterilization laws—inspired scientists and political leaders in Germany, who were also heavily discussing Darwin’s ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest.

In support of these ideas, the Nazi party began producing propaganda that blamed Germany’s social and economic problems on people with disabilities. Anyone who didn’t contribute to the well-being of the society was considered a burden to the point they were called “lives unworthy of living (2).” After the propaganda, came action.

In 1933 the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring” was passed and lead to forced sterilization of people carrying hereditary defects, which was anything from mental illness to deformations to sensory disabilities such as deafness or blindness to biracial children. Many who were sterilized were children, who often did not know what the operation meant until years later. You can hear a few of these victims tell the story in their own words here.

After this, more action came with the registration of disabilities. Political leaders wanted to know how many people with disabilities were in nursing homes, being born in hospitals, and living at home. It became required for doctors, midwives, and nurses to report this information. Once that information was gathered, Aktion Tiergartenstrasse 4 (T4) began. In a nutshell, the T4 program was a campaign of mass murder of people with disabilities. It began in 1939 with the quiet killing of infants and children under the age of 3 who were suspected of having a hereditary disability. Parents did not have a say in their child’s future. If they fought the decision of the doctors, their baby was taken away.

When WWII broke out, T4 expanded to older children, adults, and the elderly with disabilities. Disabled people were being trafficked to special “institutions” and “special sections” where it was believed that they would receive better treatment. In reality, they were being sent to various places to be slaughtered. These were the first instances of mass murder in Germany and, of course, needed to be undertaken secretly. This meant there was a need to develop new technology to kill several people at a time and provide a way to efficiently dispose of the bodies. That’s how gas chambers were invented and why furnaces became the top method of disposing of bodies.

The Nazi party kept T4 secret. Most parents who dropped their children or family members off at these institutions didn’t know they were delivering them to the arms of death. While most adults had the mercy of being killed quickly, for children it was a different story. Children were often locked in rooms and either starved or beaten until dead. Those with mental illnesses were sometimes kept for experiments. One particular doctor, Heinrich Gross, would preserve the brains of disabled children in jars for further studies. He is credited with killing more children than any other doctor under the T4 program and has never been formally charged for these crimes.

I am sad to say that Gross’s victims were not laid to rest until April 28, 2002. Gross kept their brains as part of his collection of study and research, continuing to dissect their brains as late as 1998. (3)

After the success of the T4 program, the Nazi party turned to target Jews, Blacks, Transgender, Homosexuals, interracial couples, and many others. With the new technology developed under the T4 program, they had the means to do mass exterminations the likes of which had never been seen before.

T4 continued through the war until Germany surrendered to Allied powers on May 7, 1945. The last murder of the program took place on May 29, 1945. It was a boy named Richard Jeene who was four years old and classified as a “feebleminded idiot” (4). While the exact number of people who were killed under T4 isn’t known, estimations range from 200,000 to 360,000 (5).

Had the T4 program been prevented or failed, it is likely the Holocaust would never have come to past. From this history, we can see how when one group successfully justifies the extermination or discrimination of another group, there will always be another group to target. Because the disabled community is one of the most invisible and oppressed minorities on the planet, it is not uncommon for them to be the first target.

Unfortunately, discussions about disabilities and eugenics continue to this day. As an example, many believe that disabilities need to be cured or eradicated. Abortion laws around the world often allow fetuses who have been diagnosed with disabilities to be terminated at much later dates than allowed for a non-disabled fetus. This assumes that children with disabilities will have a lower quality of life or be too much of a burden. Another example, some groups are pushing for assisted suicide for disabled people, which would allow someone with a disability to legally seek out voluntary euthanasia. This arises from assumptions that people with disabilities are so miserable that they want to die. This particular issue strikes a personal nerve because I spent most of my childhood wishing I was dead. And then I grew up and I learned about disabilities and the barriers in place that made me feel that way. I developed pride in myself and my disability. I overcome those feelings and now I can’t imagine wanting to die. Assisted suicide is not an answer until we first break down the barriers that prevent disabled people from being fully integrated into society.

Woman walking along the Berlin Wall

A third example is found in efforts of trying to cure disabilities similarly has a mindset that disability makes a person less useful. Whereas focusing on accessibility and building better technology for disabled people focuses on breaking down barriers. If disabilities are completely eradicated we stand to lose so much diversity and innovation. Instead of assuming that disabilities need to be wiped out or that they are a burden, maybe society should look at the barriers that keep people with disabilities from contributing. Instead of saying “people with disabilities are burdens” try saying “what barriers prevent people with disabilities from contributing to society? How can we challenge or remove these barriers?”

One of the reasons I started this blog was to combat the persistent negative views surrounding disabilities. Disabled people are often seen for their disability rather than as people, but we are people first, foremost, and forever. As a nation and as a global village, we are entering into a new age. As I’ve mentioned before, I am part of the first generation of the disabled community, worldwide, to grow up with civil rights. This means that disabled people are no longer segregated from non-disabled people and we are in the process of becoming a more visible community. Perhaps a better way to explain this is with a quote from Judy Heumann’s book.

“We were a people who were generally invisible in the daily life of society. I mean, think about it. If you didn’t see us in school, because we weren’t allowed in; or in your place of employment, either because we couldn’t physically access it or because we couldn’t get hired; or on your form of public transportation, because buses and trains weren’t accessible; or in restaurants or theaters, for the same reason—then where in your everyday life would you have seen us?”

Being Heumann, Page 103

When I first learned about the T4 program a couple of years ago, I felt like I had been betrayed. Why hadn’t I been taught this in school? Why wasn’t everyone taught about it? We learn about the Holocaust in detail, but nothing about how it came to be. It seemed like such an important detail to leave out. Isn’t that why we learn history? So we recognize the signs if it starts happening again? The T4 program assumed that life can be measured by usefulness while further assuming only able-bodied persons were useful, a stereotype that persists today. I have to wonder if disabilities and eugenics would still be under discussion if more people were educated about T4. Things like selective abortion are not too far off of the beginnings of the T4 program. It is discrimination. It is a matter of life and death. It is important to understand and recognize these things before they escalate into something bigger. Something more terrible.

Something that should never be silenced.

References

  1. Schweik, Susan M, and Robert A Wilson. “Ugly Laws.” The Eugenics Archives, 5 Feb. 2015, eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/tree/54d39e27f8a0ea4706000009.
  2. Cook, Ian. “The Holocaust and Disabled People: FAQ – Frequently-Asked Questions.” Ouch!, BBC, 17 Oct. 2008, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/fact/the_holocaust_and_disabled_people_faq_frequently_asked_questions.shtml.
  3. Erlanger, Steven. “Vienna Buries Child Victims Of the Nazis.” The New York Times, 29 Apr. 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/29/world/vienna-buries-child-victims-of-the-nazis.html.
  4. Krausz, Tibor. “You Were Born to Die for Germany.” Tibor Krausz, The Jerusalem Report, 28 Nov. 2005, tiborkrausz.com/html/book_review/You_were_born_to_die_for_germany.html.tiborkrausz.com/html/book_review/You_were_born_to_die_for_germany.html.
  5. Berenbaum, Michael. “T4 Program.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Feb. 2001, http://www.britannica.com/event/T4-Program.