Crip Camp Is the Kind of Inspiration We Need Right Now

 vanityfair.com  03/25/2020 14:17:52   Richard Lawson

Those of us feeling a sinking helplessness in the face of a government that seems callous or outright malignant to our well-being at the moment may take some inspiration in the new documentary Crip Camp, a Sundance hit that arrives on Netflix on March 25. The film, from directors James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, begins as a look at a particular summer camp, Camp Jened, that was a haven for teenagers with disabilities from the 1950s through most of the 1970s. But as the filmwhich is a mix of talking-head interviews and a stunning amount of archival footageprogresses, it zooms out to document the struggle for disabled rights that would eventually lead to the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act.

Lebrecht saw this movement foment while attending Camp Jened, an idyllic place in upstate New York run by hippies. Its goal was simple, but profound: to give disabled kids, some mobile, some not, a normal sort of summer, full of socializing, romance, and the kind of risk that able-bodied kids are allowed and encouraged to take, but was so often denied of Lebrecht and his friends. As we watch this heartening footagewhile various campers, now grown and nostalgic, explain how vital a place and time it waswe dont at first realize the significance of these gatherings.

But then Crip Camp wanders forward in time, to when many of the campers, led by longtime disability rights advocate and Jened alum Judith Heumann, took the spirit of strength and unity imbued in them at the camp into the broader world. Their immediate cause was Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which would codify various regulations meant to make the lives of disabled people crucially more manageable, but was delayed by the Nixon and Ford administrations due to concerns about what enforcing the regulations would cost. Heumann and her allies organized sit-in protests and marches on Washington, much of which was captured on film.

Section 504 made it illegal for any company or institution, any organization really, that received federal funds to discriminate against disabled people, in education or employment. It was a crucial bit of legislation, one met with plenty of resistance. But Heumann and friends hammered away, with toughness but good cheer, until the right thing was done. And the cause continued on. People with mobility issues still face problems of access now, of course. But before these crucial laws were put into place, and into practice, there was virtually no legal standard for building codes or anything that now enables freer movement for people in need of things like ramps and elevators. The ADA changed much of that, a sweeping and necessary set of laws whose passing, in 1990, really began in the 1970s with these kids fighting for 504. So, in many ways, they helped change the physical reality of this country, through diligent citizen action against the stalwart forces of the monied, self-interested status quo. That is wholly inspiring, to watch the unfolding of this vastly important movement in American history, one whose significance is often overlooked in histories of that era of seismic change.

Having lived these experiences himself, and being friends with many of the heroes of the movement, Lebrecht, with longtime collaborator Newnham, is careful to individuate certain key players, to spend time addressing their individual humanity. One particularly engaging, funny subject is the writer Denise Sherer Jacobson, who talks about how desexualized she felt by a society that saw her only as someone with cerebral palsyand how that spurred her to get a masters in human sexuality and to become an advocate not only for the broader cause of disabled rights, but for the fullness of her own personhood. Jacobson is a striking voice throughout Crip Camp, chasing away any notions of saintliness in favor of a truth thats scary for many people who arent disabled, and who would prefer those who are be safely out of sight and out of mind. Other than documenting an important civil rights campaign, that is Crip Camps noble mission: much like Camp Jeneds work, the film doesnt grant agency to disabled people so much as it recognizes the agency and dignity they inherently possess.

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