Film Review

Crip Camp

todayApril 18, 2024 38

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By – Gareth Jones

This should be required viewing for everyone

Premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, there was a tremendous amount of excitement built around this documentary.  Sundance, over the years has tried to be at the forefront of disability representation and having accommodations for people with disabilities at the festival. I knew this first hand as the person who needed to provide access to parking and being dropped off at venues. It was not always perfect, but we always tried to do our best.  I think this documentary highlighted why that approach should be everywhere.

It tells the story of an amazing summer camp, Camp Jened, that in the early 70’s was one of if not the only summer camp for teenagers with disabilities to attend.  Not only did they attend, but it proved to be the genesis of a movement.  So many future advocates for disability rights attended the camp either as campers or as counselors.  It was run by a group of “hippies” that not only believed in freedom for all, but actually acted on it with the way the camp was run. This was a place where everyone was treated equally and given the same opportunities.  For example, if you were at the baseball game, you had to go to bat. It didn’t matter.  I love this as a metaphor for the camp.  They all went to bat for people with disabilities.

The film is co-directed by Jame LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham.  James, a fantastic sound engineer, was in fact one of the campers at Camp Jened.  It was a transformational experience for him. He had his first kiss, his first girlfriend, his first sampling of drugs, and so many other experiences that non-disabled people take for granted.  The rites of passage into adulthood.  At one point, a case of crabs even breaks out at the camp.  This is humorous in the film but it also presents the fact that everyone has sexual needs and it is a breath of fresh air to see that talked about in a film.

Amazingly, there was a small hippie documentary crew that filmed one summer at Jened.  Nicole Newnham was somehow able to track down these tapes and even more amazingly they were still playable.  This footage is the heart of the first part of the film and is an essential document of a crucial place in disabled rights history.

One of the camp counselors at Jened was Judy Heumann, the future leading advocate for disability rights.  One of the most eloquent, determined, individuals, she went on to lead the sit-in that occupied federal buildings across the country in 1977.  This sit-in that lasted for 27 days in San Francisco forced the federal government to finally sign the 504 bill, making it required for any buildings funded by federal funds to provide access and accommodations.  This led eventually to the American with Disabilities Act in 1990 that continued the battle to get accommodations and access for people with disabilities.  The battle continues, but this film documents the beginnings of this movement, the leading players, and some genuinely wonderful people who just wanted to have the same rights as non-disabled.

Available to stream on Netflix and for free on YouTube

Written by: Gareth Jones

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