MS Movie Review: Crip Camp

I finally sat down and watched the Oscar-nominated documentary, Crip Camp. What is it about? In 1971, a camp in the Catskill mountains about three hours from Manhattan hosted dozens of teens with disabilities.

The counselors, most lacking training to work with disabled people, provided an experience some refer to as the “Woodstock for the disabled,” a flashpoint that launched the disability rights movement.

This camp empowered and liberated

Crip Camp documents this historical legacy through the perspective of sound engineer James (“Jimmy”) LeBrecht, a teenaged boy with spina bifida who came of age at Camp Jened. He went on to join dozens of other campers in a lifetime of activism.1

Camp counselor Larry Allison described the camp’s original aim: “To provide the kind of environment where teenagers could be teenagers.”2 Little did he know he and his peers—including the powerful disability rights advocate, Judy Huemann would empower and liberate so many in the decades that followed.3

Behold the history of disability rights

The old-timey Camp Jened footage brings “feel good” charm, showing kids in wheelchairs, blind teens, and others with disabilities in what may resemble a nostalgic nod to a singular summer camp run by hippies.

But the movers and shakers from that singular liberating experience, young people falling in love, playing baseball, swimming, smoking cigarettes, and playing music would become critical players in the disability rights movement birthed in the 1970s.

Many of them—with cerebral palsy, polio, or blindness would eventually sleep on floors in government buildings, block intersections with wheelchairs, and crawl up flights of stairs to usher the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) into existence.

The ADA followed almost 20 years of legally toothless promises for improved access to people in wheelchairs made in section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), lip service that went unenforced, pushing disability access and inclusion back into the shadows.4

What happened 50 years ago makes a difference now

The protesters in the film organized to topple the monolithic problem of architectural access. They took the fight straight to the top, targeting federally funded public spaces like schools, government buildings, and hospitals.

Sidewalk curb ramps, elevators for multi-story buildings, accessible public transportation, and closed caption technology all originated from this very basic human right to access.

Those of us with MS have benefited from and owe thanks for all they’ve done. Support animals exist because of their efforts. So do hands-free automatic doors, grab bars in bathrooms, hand controls for vehicles, power chairs, accessible polling sites, and handicapped parking spaces.

Today, our society recognizes that disability challenges aren’t limited to physical access. Sensitivity training services, removal of digital access barriers, social support systems, chronic illness, and disability awareness campaigns, and the right to both privacy and accommodations at the workplace for all. Even those with an invisible illness extend this legacy.

“Nothing about us without us”

This often-used phrase from the disability rights movement captures the stark reality of poor representation in the halls of policymakers. After all, how can we make global changes to access and inclusion if we don’t also invite those with chronic illness, permanent injury, and disability (visible or not) to sit at the table and share perspectives, needs, and ingenuity?

That’s what the folks in Crip Camp did but they didn't wait for an invitation. They pushed their way to the decision-making table. The film testifies to the common good that can come from hard-fought representation.

This film also gives us a seat at that same table, in a sense—whether we’re disabled or not. In the 21st century, we can still be witnesses, directly and indirectly, we can still demand representation for the needs of not only ourselves, but of our children, siblings, parents, neighbors, friends, and coworkers.

Watching Crip Camp fuels inspiration, energy, and momentum to do so. It encourages us to step up as we see or experience unmet needs, to make it impossible to go back to the (not so) good old days.

Required viewing? Yes!

Fixing attitudes at the societal level will always be hard. As camper Denise Jacobson said, “You can pass a law, but until you change society’s attitudes, that law won’t mean much.”5 When the ADA was passed in 1990, US President George Herbert Walk Bush said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

It's not down yet: we still face hurdles regarding affordable care, economic support, and access to therapies. These obstacles arise from a great lack of awareness among institutions and health-privileged individuals. Ableism is a problem, too; it describes discrimination, even unintended, against those with disabilities.

But Crip Camp definitely possesses the power to change today’s hearts and minds and maybe a system or two, as well.

CRIP CAMP. ©2020, Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, co-producers; Barack and Michelle Obama, executive producers. Higher Ground Productions. Now available free on Netflix and YouTube.

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