In the opening scenes of Crip Camp, a documentary available on Netflix, school buses pull into the entrance of Jened, a summer camp in New York’s Catskills. When the doors open, campers step into the sun, some on crutches, others in wheelchairs, all “disabled” in one way or another, using the brutal and dismissive language that was common in 1971 when the early archive recordings of the Documentary filmmaker was shot dead.
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Accompanied by young recruiters who show most of the visual traits of the 1970s counterculture – long hair, beards, tie-dyed T-shirts and pearls – these kids swim in a pool; play energetic, adapted baseball and soccer games; and discover the joys of participatory democracy, meet groups, dance and summer romance.
All of this plays out to a soundtrack of vintage rock and folk music like Richie Havens ‘”Freedom” and The Grateful Deads “Truckin'” that will delight viewers from a certain age.
Some of the children we meet in these opening scenes organized a national civil rights movement in the United States to establish and expand the rights of the disabled, a movement as notable as it is for its tactical innovations, tireless courage, and significant victories its relative invisibility in mainstream, recorded history.
Crip Camp, the product of an ongoing partnership between Netflix and Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company Higher Ground, is an important corrective to this invisibility. It is also a film with important lessons for anyone who wants to organize politically to make the world fairer and to protect our fragile environment from the catastrophic onslaught of climate change and pollution. It’s probably the most important movie you’ll see on Netflix this season.
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People who live with physical and developmental disabilities today often remain almost invisible to their peers, even though disabled people make up almost 15 percent of the world’s population, according to the UN. According to Statistics Canada, 22 percent of Canadians over 15 live with disabilities.
Additionally, those of us who spend a majority of our lives disabled-friendly are likely to experience some mobility and functional challenges as we age – driving one of the passengers I ran a HandyDart bus in Vancouver for 20 years. I drove around and called myself and other non-disabled people “temporarily unable to work”. (Now that I’m over 70, I learn every day how right she was!)
But the children we meet at Crip Camp learned more quickly than I did how badly the world is organized to meet their needs. You were born into a world where public buildings did not have wheelchair ramps or entrances, and sidewalks did not have curbs to move around town in wheelchairs. In other words, a world where their separate invisibility was an to most unnoticed aspect of their daily, lived reality.
The first half of the Crip Camp sheds light on what these activists will experience in Jened. The footage it depends on comes from the work of another archetypal experiment of the 1970s, New York’s People’s Video Theater.
Armed with bulky video cameras, the young videographers embedded themselves at Jened’s and recorded both formal meetings and informal private moments. These scenes are interwoven with news material and later with interviews with adult children who we have seen experience the revolutionary effects of respect, agency and support in the camp as they become activists and reflect on their founding days at Crip Camp.
One of the co-producers of the documentary, Jim LeBrecht, was Camper in Jened in 1971. His experience there inspired him to move to Berkeley, California, and help shape the movement he celebrates in the film. We see him as an angelic teenager with long curly hair, whizzing around camp in his wheelchair, enjoying the time with his first girlfriend.
“We saw in this camp that our life could be better,” he says during an interview filmed in 2019. “We were brothers and sisters there. Jened exposed me to the outside world. “
Another key figure who emerged from Camp Jened and helped change the world was counselor Judy Heumann, whose story forms one of the moving narratives and dramatic passages of Crip Camp.
When the New York Department of Education refused to hire Heumann – who himself had been denied public education because of her disability – as a teacher in the city’s schools, she went to court in 1970.
Heumann won a landmark decision that forced the city to hire her as the district’s first disabled teacher. (The judge who ruled in Heumann’s favor knew a little about discrimination herself. Judge Constance Baker Motley had earlier acted for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in landmark cases against racially segregated schools, including the iconic Brown v . Education Council.)
Heumann was later one of the first Camp Jened gangs to move to Berkeley, where she helped found the groundbreaking Center for Independent Living.
When the Carter administration stalled its election promises to enforce the disability rights theoretically guaranteed by the 1972 Rehabilitation Act, Heumann and her accomplices carried out a series of high-profile direct actions, including a month-long occupation of federal offices in San Francisco and a pilgrimage to Washington to bring their message to the President.
The crew news footage and lobbying trip to DC provide some of the most exciting and educational moments in this remarkable documentary. We see the occupiers’ almost tangible sense of community as they settle into federal offices, their creative use of their special talents to evade official sabotage, such as sign language out the window to communicate with supporters outside after the FBI’s phones cut off in the occupied building.
We also see the occupiers reaching out to potential allies and generating community support. We see them develop a relationship with Evan White, a local television journalist who is the only one to have extensively covered their struggles and victory in the mainstream media. White’s coverage includes much of the archival material used in this part of the documentary.
This wild, joyous energy explains how Heumann and her gang managed to mobilize solidarity campaigns from the Black Panthers, gay and lesbian activists, unions, churches and other allies. The Machinists Union, for example, rented moving trucks to take Heumann and her allies around DC on their protest rounds.
Eventually, Carter’s troubled health, education and welfare ministers gave in to the pressure and approved the enforcement of neglected legal language in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a law that was itself the result of lobbying and pressure previously organized by Heumann and her accomplices. This enforcement has significantly improved the protection of the rights of Americans with disabilities.
But this victory was only a partial victory; Heumann and the movement she helped built campaigned for the Americans with Disabilities Act to be passed in 1990.
The far-reaching legislation has an immense impact on the lives of Americans. It prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities at work, housing and transportation. It required communication companies to provide adequate access for people with visual and hearing impairments.
Seven years after the law came into force, Heumann and her allies gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the occupation of federal offices under Section 504.
“It is no exaggeration to say that we all took part in one of the largest and most successful popular movements of the 20th century,” said Ken Stein, one of the original occupiers, at the memorial ceremony.
This American success story and the documentary it documents are of compelling interest to Canadian disability activists. Paul Caune, founder of Civil Rights Now and source of the educational epigram “If You Want Politicians to See the Light, You Must Turn Up the Heat,” told me that he viewed Crip Camp with mixed feelings.
“I was happy to see people win,” he told me in early July, “and I was ashamed and ashamed of the disability movement in Canada.”
Caune told me that he believed the recently passed Accessible BC Act was toothless and not lacking in the enforcement powers created by American law.
The US is not a utopia for the disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he adds – but he still believes civil disobedience campaigns and aggressive litigation will be the best way to create enforceable rights for disabled people in Canada north of the border .
Civil disobedience can be alarming to those who maintain the status quo, but Crip Camp makes a compelling case for violent activism. At a moment when new generations of indigenous land protectors, BIPOC activists, disability rights activists, feminists and lawyers in queer communities are fighting for their rights on the street and in court, often using civil disobedience and often met with angry criticism from those, fear of change Crip Camp offers a useful antidote to these anxious voices.
Why does BC’s accessibility legislation exclude me?
Tim Louis, former Vancouver councilor and longtime political activist who has been a wheelchair user for most of his life, told me that watching Crip Camp reinforced his belief that disabled people “should make a fuss.”
“We have to represent ourselves,” he said. “We don’t need to be rehabilitated. Society does it. ”
While agreeing with Caune’s statement about the need for further progress in Canada on the rights of people with disabilities, he notes with pride and satisfaction the changes that have been made, particularly in his hometown of Vancouver – which is now with curb cuts and HandyDart services, says Louis, makes it a “Heaven for the Disabled”.
“As a movement, we have moved beyond what we could have imagined at the time,” he told me.
Crip Camp is a remarkable, fun, and moving documentary that will appeal to anyone who has lived with the challenges of a physical or developmental disability – and any activist today wondering how to reproduce or advance their achievements.
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