Crip Camp | Docs/ology

Crip Camp

Director: James LeBrecht, Nicole Newnham

Some swear that summer camp can be a life-changing experience. But for those who attended Camp Jened in 1971, the experience didn’t just change them. It changed their world.

Camp Jened, located in the Catskills of New York state, seemed like a camp like no other. It was created to serve the disabled, America’s most ignored and misunderstood minority community. Into its folds came a myriad of kids who struggled with physical disabilities: Those who couldn’t walk because of polio or could barely talk because of cerebral palsy. Many of the counselors came from the same background. When former camper (and the film’s co-director) Jim LeBrecht first wheeled himself into the camp, he wasn’t sure who was a camper and who was a counselor.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, suggests that Camp Jened was, at least in the early 1970s a little like a summertime Woodstock for the physically challenged. The place was run by a bunch of hippies, we’re told, and the place was a riot of freedom like most of the campers never experienced anywhere else. For most of the year, they lived in the real world—a world that ignored them as much as possible. Sure, their parents were great, many campers acknowledged, but one says that “sometimes I hate them, because they’re too great, and too protective.”

But those who attended Camp Jened would experience things there they rarely did in the outside world. They dated, they laughed and sang without shame, even if their lips could barely form words. They even played sports.

“At home you wouldn’t get picked for a team,” Jened counselor Lionel Je’Woodyard said. “At Jened, you had to go up to bat.”

Crip Camp suggests that Camp Jened was ultimately more than just a fun, summertime escape. It galvanized some to become activists—to push the world a little closer to the one they experienced at camp. Many former campers and counselors started demanding increased access to the world around them. And that eventually led, after a long and incredibly determined struggle, to the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, finally passed by congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. And while a host of unlikely players helped the movement along, Crip Camp tells us that vets of Camp Jened made up the movement’s core.

Crip Camp, which premieres on Netflix this month, isn’t necessarily fare for the whole family. It’s rated R for language, and the frankness with which some topics are discussed can be a bit embarrassing. But then again, perhaps that’s the point: Crip Camp shows us the full-fleshed, multi-faceted humanity of its prime players. We see the beauty in them, and the spirited struggle they faced to find equality under the law. It’s a deeply personal doc, too. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama and informed by LeBrecht’s witty, first-person perspective (and co-director Nicole Newnham’s respect and warmth), Crip Camp is more than a chronicle of an overdue Civil Rights battle, but a sweet remembrance of a shared, savored, childhood memory.

Let’s face it: Even today, when most of us see someone with an obvious disability, our first instinct might be to turn away. Crip Camp forces us to see. We get to know its characters as much as we can within the confines of a short documentary. And perhaps, we can’t help but wish that we could’ve experienced Camp Jened, too. 

Written by Paul Asay