Produced by Michelle and Barack Obama and directed by Nicole Newnham with Jim LeBrecht, this indispensable documentary defines what it means to call a movie “inspiring.” Their raucous fist-bump of a film is a 1950s origin story about Camp Jened, affectionately nicknamed “Crip Camp,” a New York summer getaway for kids with disabilities. Located near Woodstock, the camp was basically run by inexperienced hippies, including founder Larry Allison, with their hearts in the right place. By the 1970s, Crip Camp had become a haven for kids, including LeBreacht (born with spina bifida), who found they could laugh, flirt, fight and be themselves away from a world they often felt alienated from.
Through amazing archival footage, shot by the journalism collective People’s Video Theater between 1970 and 1972, we see how these kids soak up their first sense of belonging. They tell us about the camp’s pecking order that puts “polios” on top and “CPs” (cerebral palsy) at the opposite end. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll all play a part, wheelchairs be damned. There’s even a camp-wide outbreak of crabs that’s played for cathartic laughs. Cheers to the buoyant touch of co-director and narrator LeBrecht, the charismatic hippie-haired teenager who became a significant camp leader.
So did future activist Judy Heumann, a force of nature at speaking her mind on all subjects, from the camp menu to her sex life. She later founded the organization Disabled in Action and guilted the administrations of Nixon and Carter into actually carrying out the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which ordered federally funded spaces, including schools, libraries and hospitals, to be made accessible to all through construction and alterations. Heumann knew that passing the bill was one thing, enforcing it another. Newsreel footage shows this fighter, along with other Jened campers and supporters, staging a 25-day sit-in at the San Francisco Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1977 to push hard for their rights. We get to see how this dynamo, now 72, went from having her eyes open to the possibilities in her life to putting that same life on the line for her cause.
It’s in the second half of the film that the filmmakers stay focused on Heumann and other camp attendees who turned their experiences into a national movement. At no moment do we forget that this victory for human rights is the product of kids from a free-wheeling social experiment that attendees saw even then as a utopia. Using their voices for demonstrations and protests, they helped pass 1990’s revolutionary Americans With Disabilities Act. This doc proves that they are still changing the world.