Review: Crip Camp

If you know nothing at all about it, a film with the title Crip Camp might not immediately jump to the top of your Netflix queue. Rest assured, it should. An official selection at January’s Sundance Film Festival (back when there were such things as film festivals), the documentary—subtitled A Disability Revolution and co-directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham—is an undeniably inspiring chronicle of the disability rights movement in America with one very special summer camp as the epicenter from which an entire generation of activists was born.

Formally known as Camp Jened, the ‘crip camp’ was a place for kids and teens with disabilities, developmental delays or other differences—the stuff that made them outsiders at home—to be entirely themselves. For a few glorious summers in the late 1960s, as the country was deep into free love, hippie culture, kids in wheelchairs or with walking aids, kids with cerebral palsy or who’d recovered from polio, got to experience life away at summer camp. They swam, they played baseball, they ate in a mess hall; they even got quarantined in their dorms when all their messing around (as kids do at summer camp) resulted in a rash of crabs passed between campers.

For the first third of Crip Camp, Newnham and Lebrecht (himself a camp attendee and now a successful sound designer for film and stage) interview the former campers and camp counselors as they recall the significance of this special place. We see a young Judith Heumann leading a camp meeting to decide what to make for dinner on the chef’s night off, taking a vote by show of hands on who’s in favor of lasagna. From the present, Heumann, who is in a wheelchair after surviving polio as a child, recalls how important it was that everyone in that room had their voice heard, that they felt seen and acknowledged. Even over something as simple as a dinner vote, the campers found more agency than was typically theirs in an outside, abled world.

Through stories like hers and endearing archival footage captured by an amateur filmmaker and fellow camper, a beautifully nostalgic picture comes together of what a meaningful place this particular summer camp was for its attendees. What’s not so clear at first is just how big a role the camp will play in not only its campers’ futures, but the country’s. Because in fact, Camp Jened did much more than entertain and connect this unique group; it planted the seeds of self confidence, agency and ambition that eventually blossomed into a movement that would change the way an entire country sees and embraces those with disabilities.

The film soon moves on from the camp to follow Heumann, Lebracht and others as they pursue educations, careers and their own livelihoods, buoyed by their experience there as they face a world with no interest in accommodating them, let alone treating them as full citizens worthy of the same pursuit of life, love and liberty as everyone else. By its second act, Crip Camp has seamlessly transitioned into an important historical record of a fight for equality that, until now, is not nearly as well known as that of women or African Americans. But it was a fight all its own, often led by Heumann, an activist and organizer who championed early versions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (and eventually the ADA itself) through any means necessary. A sequence recounting a 1977 sit-in in San Francisco where activists demanded the city implement the new federal accessibility regulations is wildly galvanizing, as Heumann and her contemporaries recount their commitment to the cause, holding hunger strikes and communicating with the outside world through sign language when the FBI cut the phone lines. That those participating in the sit-in were doing all this while navigating their own unique health needs and issues, from mobility to equipment needs to medications and more, puts their commitment into ever more stark relief.

We live in daunting times, where our collective effort (or lack thereof) is all that separates us from certain catastrophe. What’s more, it can be all too easy to forget just how powerful one voice, one targeted effort can be in the push for real, structural change. As both a heartfelt recollection of a place that shaped the lives of those who passed through it and a stirring record of a civil rights movement that still impacts lives today, Crip Camp arrives on Netflix just when we need reminding of all that most (and just when we can’t leave our homes anyways).