Crip Camp

There is a moment, about 14 minutes into Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s Netflix documentary, Crip Camp, when a young woman asks a group of people what they would like for dinner. Options include chicken parmesan and lasagne.

 

We never find out what meal is eventually chosen. All of our attention is focused on 23 year old camp counsellor, Judy Heumann. She is in control but inclusive, kind but insistent, firm but patient. Her voice soars over the collective hubbub - demanding to be heard.

 

In this moment, we understand that Crip Camp is far more than just a charming and nostalgic tale of life at a ramshackle camp for teenagers with disabilities.

 

We first hear about Camp Jened from LeBrecht. Born with spina bifida, he defied medical expectations. He loved music and he loved life: “I wanted to be part of the world but I didn’t see anyone like me in it," he recalls in the documentary. 

 

"Then I hear from some people about this summer camp. It’s a summer camp for, you know, the handicapped - run by hippies - and someone said, you know you’ll probably smoke dope with the counselors and I’m like: sign me up!”

 

As we watch archive footage of Camp Jened, LeBrecht explains that “the wild thing is that this camp changed the world and nobody knows this story.” That, however, is all about to change.

 

 

Camp Jened, located in the Catskills a few hours north of New York City, was founded by a man called Larry Allison. In an audio interview in Crip Camp, Allison states that “what we tried to do was provide the kind of environment where teenagers could be teenagers without all the stereotypes and labels.

 

“That was a by-product of the times, you know, of social experimentation. We realised that the problem did not exist with people with disabilities but the problem existed with people that didn’t have disabilities - it was our problem. So it was important for us to change.”

 

Revolution was certainly in the air in the 60s and 70s and, as Crip Camp reveals, many of the campers at Jened noticed a growing desire for change. They had experienced a sense of freedom, acceptance and community that they had never felt before. 

 

When camp came to an end, however, reality was unbearably difficult - both physically and emotionally. “I had to try to adapt,” LeBecht recalls. “I had to fit into this world that wasn’t built for me. It never dawned on me that the world was ever going to change.”

 

That would likely have remained true had it not been for the persistence of - yep, you’ve guessed it - Judy Heumann.

 

In 1972, empowered after their experience at Camp Jened, Huemann and other campers and camp counselors decided to campaign for the rights of disabled people. Huemann became the president of political organisation, Disabled in Action (DIA). One of DIA's first targets was the institutionalisation of the disabled.

 

My heart sank as I knew what was coming - Geraldo Rivera’s infamous expose into the treatment of people at the Willowbrook Institute. The shocking footage of the atrocious conditions at Willowbrook has lost none of its power. 

 

Judy Huemann
Judy Huemann

 

Meanwhile, Newnham and LeBrecht’s documentary never loses sight of Camp Jened. You feel the camp’s presence even when, midway through Crip Camp, the focus shifts to Huemann and DIA’s fight for civil rights. 

 

In powerful, moving and inspiring scenes, we see an ever growing group of people come together - via a series of protests and demonstrations - to demand fair treatment and access to the world. 

 

A force to be reckoned with, Huemann is often at the forefront of these protests. “People were not used to seeing a whole lot of folks in wheelchairs and you had to back up - I mean you had to back up - if you were on the wrong side in front of that young woman,” states Dr William Bronston, a former doctor at Willowbrook.

 

While Huemann’s experience lies at the heart of Crip Camp, we also hear a number of stories - some heartbreaking, some joyful, all remarkable - from other people who spent time at Camp Jened. Their bond is still strong, their shared camp experience having emboldened them throughout their lives.

 

The journey was not easy, of course. The US Government was slow to react to DIA’s demands. The media lacked interest in its cause. However, they did not give up. Huemann inspired steadfast loyalty, even during the occupation of a government building.

 

“We were more scared of disappointing Judy than we ever were of the FBI or the police department arresting us,” recalls writer and activist, Corbett O’Toole.

 

As Crip Camp approached its conclusion, I started to wonder why I had not heard of Camp Jened or the DIA's civil rights protests. Why did I not know about the tireless work of Judy Huemann and her fellow activists?

 

United by their camp experience, these remarkable people really did change the world. Thanks to Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s insightful and inspiring documentary, I hope that their stories will now get the recognition they so richly deserve.

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones

E: jane@500daysoffilm.com


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