Netflix released Crip Camp on March 25, 2020
Founded in the early ‘50s, Camp Jened was a ‘loose, free-spirited’ summer camp for disabled teenagers – a place in upstate New York shielded from misguided pity, scorn and stares, a place where one could grow, realize one’s full potential and even share a smoke with the counselors. Streaming now on Netflix, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution chronicles a care-free, sundrenched summer of 1971, when all campers with disabilities were allowed to simply be, surrounded by people of their own age who were creative, opinionated and, of course, much horny.
It was as if the outside world conspired to entangle these teenagers in its convoluted, ruthless machinery, and only in Camp Jened were they finally free to bare their whole selves and be loved in return. Sitting across from one another, the teenagers discussed their first romance stories, the over-protectiveness of their parents, the imposed asexuality and the lack of privacy that they had been subjected to since birth – knowing that no stigma or shame could touch them there among friends and allies. Set against the backdrop of the ‘60s counterculture movement, the air of Camp Jened carried a rare promise of acceptance and stoked the fire of hope within the campers to possibly cure the world of its ingrained deformity in the coming years.
When summer was over, campers bade tearful farewells to one another, promising to write, to reconnect, to apply what they have learned to the broader world. Crip Camp shines a light on the little known heartwarming story of Camp Jened, which became a breeding ground for an entire generation of internationally recognized disability rights activists, who learned to refuse to take no for an answer during the summer of ’71 while they played music for one another, engaged in fiery, long-winded conversations and recognized the myriad possibilities that lay before them.
In the following years, the campers reveled in the faded dream of a heavenly summer spent in Camp Jened, and sought to imbue the outside world with the same revolutionary spirit of those bright days that empowered and elevated them. The second half of the documentary traces the footsteps of these campers who by the end of the decade successfully organized the historical 504 Sit-in that demanded the signing of regulations of Section 504 of the Rehabitalitaion Act of 1973. Former members of Camp Jened were on the frontline of the memorable 28-day Sit-in and led the fight to remove all social and architectural barriers that discriminated against disabled people. Over the course of the 28 days, they occupied government buildings in San Francisco and carried the mood of Camp Jened along with them to the solid, colourless federal establishments. They sat in groups, broke into raucous laughter, strategized about the coming days, exchanged tales of their fears and hopes, and upheld a spirit of community in which all were equal as well as deserving of fair and unprejudiced treatment.
Not only Crip Camp focuses on a watershed moment in history that has been largely overlooked, but it also provides a compelling commentary on the indispensable role of a community to guide its youths throughout their formative years and the absolute necessity to make the government work for its people, rather than the other way around.
The documentary begins with homemade footage of a little feisty boy named James LeBrecht who was born with spina bifida. Doctors predicted he would die soon. But he had other plans. As a shy teenager with long hair, LeBrecht would go to Camp Jened in 1971, fall in love for the first time with a beautiful girl, discover himself as a whole person rather than a mere liability. Almost 50 years later, he would co-direct the uplifting and sure-handedly made documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Needless to say, his doctors were dead wrong.