What happens when you bring together a group of disabled people and motivated counselors who have been influenced by the social movements and liberation struggles around them in the early 1970s? You will get the story of the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp 2020. Released in March 2020 while much of the country was closed due to COVID-19, the film never made it to theaters. Streaming on Netflix and YouTube is a great way to celebrate July 26th, the 31st anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Crip Camp captures a heroic and important part of the story of the fight. The documentary tells the story of how the interactions in the summer of 1972 at Camp Jened, a camp for disabled youth in the Catskills, New York, helped build the grassroots militant movement for disability rights. Campers are shown in footage captured by the People’s Video Theater at Camp Jened in 1972, over the years as activists and leaders in protests for the rights of people with disabilities and in recent interviews.
The spirit of changing society to meet people’s needs has certainly influenced the spirit of Camp Jened, as portrayed in the opening song “Freedom” with beautiful shots of dancing campers. Camper for campers describes the freedom they experienced in camp to roll where they wanted, break out of isolation and meet other similar teenagers and see what is possible. This issue of rights and accessibility is fundamental for people with disabilities, who are often very isolated.
“If you are a disabled person and happen to have a passive nature, you are really screwed,” said Steve Hoffman (1950-2017), a camper with cerebral palsy, in a group discussion. Hoffman himself is anything but passive. His prophetic words set the stage for video recordings of important actions that demonstrated the strength and determination of disabled people. These include the use of wheelchairs to close the streets of New York City in 1972 after President Richard Nixon vetoed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and a 25-day sit-down and occupation of the Department of Health Education’s San Francisco office and Wohlfahrt in 1977 had the longest occupancy of a federal building.
There are also footage of the dramatic May 13, 1990 Washington march and the Capitol Crawl in which 60 disabled people, including many from Camp Jened, threw away their wheelchairs and aids in order to crawl up the steps of the Capitol building demanding rights . This culminated in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The other struggle that achieved success in the same year was the passage of the Ryan White Act, which essentially set up an entire system to help people with HIV.
There are many triumphs in documentary film, personal as well as political. Camper Denise Sherer Jackson with cerebral palsy said today she went to the doctor with abdominal pain and a surgeon decided to remove a perfectly healthy appendix instead of checking for an STD that was actually causing the problem, assuming it wasn’t sexually active. Jackson later received a masters degree in human sexuality. It gets better. We see her wearing a t-shirt that says, “Behind this t-shirt is a sensual woman who shatters stereotypes.”
There are a number of gems in the documentation. A discussion between Jackson and Neil Jacobson about hierarchies of suppression based on disability or points of suppression is considered ridiculous by campers and ends in roaring laughter.
Lionel Je ‘Woodyard K’Nex, one of the camp counselors, shares his story: “I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. And I saw a sign that said, Summer Jobs at Camp, New York. I didn’t know anyone who was disabled. ”He shares his experiences with racism as part of the civil rights movement that he brought with him to the camp.
The documentary certainly provides enough information about the dire conditions that both children and adults with disabilities had to go through. The recordings of the then conditions for people with disabilities at Willowbrook State School in New York City are shocking, but in many ways they reflect the conditions that still exist today in some nursing homes and other facilities under capitalism whose main motive is not being good To provide care, but to compromise on care in order to make a profit. Stories of the spread of COVID-19 in such places show the tip of the iceberg of neglect and understaffing.
The documentary’s ending may be confusing for some who might think the Democrats saved the day, which is not true at all. In the film, numerous politicians disregard and disregard the civil rights of people with disabilities and think they are not worth the money it takes to access them. It was only after years of protests and when they finally became known nationwide that some Democrats gave their support.
Nobody could remember that in 1977 Democrats brought three meals a day when people sat in government offices in 1977 and needed food. That was the Black Panther Party. In fact, K’Nex remembers that it was Brad Lomax, a wheelchair-sitting Black Panther who could barely speak but made it clear during the sit-in that he wanted everyone to get in touch with the Black Panther Party. Active solidarity came from trade unions and the LGBTQ community and others at the grassroots, not the Democratic Party.
Disability Rights and Internationalism
If you notice the credits, you will see that the Barak and Michelle Obamas are executive producers on Higher Ground Productions. But Obama, like any other US president, is responsible for making people handicapped by war violations and sanctions. US sanctions are currently imposed on over thirty countries, many for many decades, which adversely affects people with disabilities and many other groups. Just a cursory glance shows that the US war on Cambodia caused the highest number of war-related amputees per capita.
To be truly liberated, access must not end at the border. We must be internationalist in spirit and in action. This also includes supporting the progress of people with disabilities in other countries. For example, the 1979 Sandinista revolution was a priority in Nicaragua and planned to make the country more accessible even with so few resources and a US-funded counterrevolutionary war. During this time, the government brought together Deaf people from around the world, the country that developed a sign language that is now used by the Deaf in Nicaragua.
It is the strength of our movement that has created opportunities and led politicians to stand up for the rights of people with disabilities. Judy Heumann, one of the campers and initiator of the Independent Living Movement, organizes and inspires. She said, “We will not accept a ‘no’ without explaining why. If you don’t ask for what you believe in for yourself, you won’t get it. ”Under Obama, she was appointed Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services.
Winning reforms can be lifesaving for disabled people, but the documentary makes it clear that the struggle to protect and defend these reforms and expand their implementation continues.
The film is a winner in terms of revolutionary optimism. Crip Camp got it right. First you bring oppressed people together, then you overcome fear and begin to organize. The next steps include stopping the US wars and then reorganizing society to ensure permanent access for all.