It’s an unexpected sight: all kinds of children with all kinds of disabilities in summer camp have the time of their lives. The year was 1971. The location: Camp Jened in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
Jim Lebrecht, born with Spina Bifida, was one of the campers: “Wow, Camp Jened was a place that was utopian,” he said. “It was a place where suddenly the rest of the outside world just seemed to disappear.”
Judy Heumann, who got polio when she was 18 months old, was a consultant there: “I really laughed when I saw the film – it was so funny to see me when I was 21!”
And we are now seeing this old footage as part of a recent documentary called “Crip Camp” … short for the word “crippled” that is no longer mentioned these days.
Correspondent Rita Braver asked LeBrecht why he called the film “Crip Camp”: “Basically, we wanted people to know that this is not your average film about disability, that there is an advantage,” he replied.
Lebrecht isn’t just a main character in “Crip Camp”; He is also one of the filmmakers and works with Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Nicole Newnham. “Jim showed me that disability is a culture,” she told Braver. “He made me see disability as a community.”
Lebrecht vividly remembered this Camp Jened footage, recorded by a free-roaming experimental group called People’s Video Theater, who invited campers to speak freely about their lives. They captured Camp Jened children and revealed some of their most personal feelings, including “what everyone wants to be alone in their lives sometimes”.
In lighter moments, Lebrecht was able to record videos himself with a camera attached to the wheelchair.
But LeBrecht had no idea what had become of the video after almost half a century.
Image provided by: Netflix / CBS
Newnham said, “It was just incredibly tempting to me as a filmmaker. It felt like it was the holy grail. I just searched online night after night.”
She eventually found it, and the footage became the starting point for the rest of the Netflix documentary, a project that attracted the Obamas as executive producers: “They were really creative partners,” Newnham said.
Some of the campers, especially Judy Heumann, would become leaders in the disability rights movement. Newnham noted, “You can’t see footage of our great civil rights heroes at summer camp.”
Heumann formed a group called Disabled in Action that held street demonstrations. “It was very important for all of us that people see us,” she said.
Braver asked, “You became one of several people from Camp Jened who moved to Berkeley, California. Why did you go out there?”
“I was offered a scholarship,” replied Heumann, “and then some friends followed.”
“It almost felt like you were that little group of brothers and sisters.”
“We really were and still are.”
By 1973, Congress had passed a law providing limited protection to disabled people. When an organization receives money from the federal government, it cannot discriminate against someone on the basis of disability. However, President Jimmy Carter’s administration delayed approving new regulations that were needed before the law could actually take effect.
Heumann helped sit-in with dozens of disabled people, including some from Camp Jened, at a federal office building in San Francisco – an occupying force that a CBS news reporter at the time called “protesters in wheelchairs, the lame, the paralyzed, and the blind . “
The sit-in would take weeks. Eventually, Heumann and a small delegation traveled to Washington, DC to attract attention and dragged themselves around town on a truck.
On the 23rd day of the San Francisco sit-in, Washington signed the rules very quietly. Speaking to a gathering, Heumann said, “Congress, the press and the American public have seen that we have perseverance, strength and intelligence.”
However, these new regulations only applied to certain locations. Jim LeBrecht, a few years younger than his other camp friends, began working in a Berkeley theater, a job that required him to pull himself up a flight of stairs every day.
Braver asked: “Have you ever said to yourself: ‘I can’t do this anymore, I have to stop’?”
“To be honest, no, I haven’t,” replied LeBrecht. “This job was a dream job for me. I felt that if I didn’t succeed in this job, I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
But disabled Americans wanted change. They kept up the pressure, and some even climbed the steps of the capital in peaceful protest. Finally, in 1990, Congress passed the landmark Act on Americans with Disabilities, which outlawed discrimination and required ramps and other assistance for disabled Americans nationwide.
President George HW Bush signed the bill saying, “Let the shameful wall of marginalization come down at last.”
The Camp Jened gang celebrated at the Sundance Film Festival last year when Crip Camp won the Audience Award. Jim LeBrecht said, “This was a love letter to the disabled community and I’m so proud to be up here.” Now the film is on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination.
LeBrecht said to Braver, “If we help people rethink how they see people with disabilities, or, on a larger scale, someone who is not like themselves, then we have achieved a great deal.”
And Judy Heumann, who became the State Department’s first advisor on international rights for people with disabilities in 2010, believes that watching Crip Camp might bring viewers a moment of truth: “Hopefully some of these people will leave the film for thought how they have treated other disabled people or how they have a hidden disability that they have never been publicly about and why that is. “
Watch the documentary here.
Comments are closed.