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Crip Camp is a love letter to summer camp and a civil rights documentary, writes Chris Knight


A Grand Jury nominee and audience award winner at Sundance, Crip Camp is both an uplifting personal history, and a primer on efforts by activists in America to bring about changes in civil rights for the disabled. It succeeds mightily on both scores.

James Lebrecht, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, is both co-director and subject of the opening half hour of the film, which tells the story of Camp Jened. LeBrecht went there in 1971 after hearing about “this summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies.”

Lebrecht participated in a documentary about the camp at the time, so we see him, aged 15, along with other campers and counselors discussing their experiences. Disabled clientele notwithstanding, it was pretty much the stew of teenaged hormones one would expect – picture Meatballs with wheelchairs. One camper today remembers being given “kissing lessons” by one of the counselors: “Best physical therapy I ever had!”

But America in the 1970s was a very different place for “cripples,” and not just in the language used to talk about disabilities. One black counselor from Alabama says that going back home after the summer was like stepping back in time – suddenly he was no longer an equal person to the whites around him, while his disabled friends were shut away and stigmatized.

This disparity leads directly to the second part of the film. Judy Heumann, a long-time camper-turned-counselor at Camp Jened, started organizing protests, sit-ins and lobbying of government groups. Crip Camp chronicles the 504 Sit-in, a 1977 protest against government foot-dragging in enacting portions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability.

The language in news reports from 40 years is cringe-worthy, with one journalist referring to an “occupation army of cripples” inside a federal building in San Francisco. (Later footage tones this down to “disabled protestors.”)

But the group, which included so many former campers it was a virtual reunion, was organized and broadly popular. The mayor brought in mattresses, while the local chapter of the Black Panthers delivered food. And when the FBI cut the phone lines, deaf protestors started using sign language to communicate with their comrades outside. Ultimately, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare caved and put his name to the document.

What’s lovely about Crip Camp is the way Lebrecht and co-director Nicole Newnham create a direct connection between Camp Jened in the ’70s – it closed in 1977; the end of an era – and the activism that followed. People like Heumann got their first taste of being treated like individuals in the hippie haven that was Jened. And they decided they weren’t going to settle for anything less in the outside world.

Crip Camp is available now on Netflix.

4 stars out of 5

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