“What we saw at that camp was that life could be better.”
Perhaps the main theme of the Netflix documentary Crip Camp comes near the beginning as we see film of teenaged disabled campers in 1971 while hearing Richie Havens singing the word “freedom” over and over from “Motherless Child”. For these campers, their time at Camp Jened was the first real taste of freedom and fitting in they had experienced. For some it changed their life. And they went on to change the world, which accounts for the film’s subtitle: A Disability Revolution.
Camp Jened was a camp designed for handicapped kids. It is described in the film as “run by hippies”. Co-writer/co-director/former camper James Lebrecht recalls that a friend told him the counselors would probably smoke dope with them, which led Lebrecht to respond “Sign me up!” That does seem to reflect the kind of freedom that these kids found. We learn that this was not how life was in the world they normally inhabited. Many weren’t allowed in school because they would be a hazard to other students in case of a fire. Of course, no schools were accessible in those times. They were left outside of everyday life. Here, as one of the former campers says in the film, “At Jened you were just a kid.” Here they did all the thing we expect kids of that age to do: camp romances and picking up bad habits. One of the former campers relates about one of the counselors giving him kissing lessons. He said it was the best physical therapy ever.
But the camp experience isn’t the real focus of this film. It only takes up the first third of the documentary. Because of this camp, the campers saw that life could be far different than what they had known. And for some, that led to a life of activism. These campers went on to demand inclusion in the world around them. They pushed for legislation (section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, first vetoed by President Nixon) that gave disabled people civil rights. But those rights were never really enforced. In the film we see some of the former campers as they shut down traffic, and as they occupy the Health, Education, and Welfare office in San Francisco. This, especially the democratic nature of the protest, seems to be a precursor of later protests such as Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps the most effective bit of political theater was the “Capitol Crawl” as many disabled people crawl up the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
The film shows great progress (from not being allowed in school to being allowed in but put in the basement to having laws that require access), but also shows that progress, as is always the case, was hard won. And it is still far from complete. As one of the people in the film says, “If I have to feel thankful for an accessible toilet, when will I ever be equal in the community?”
The film does an excellent job of pulling us into the issue of disabled access through the personal stories of these campers who became activists in various ways. The inspirational aspect of the film is not what they did in spite of handicaps, but the way they changed the world because of their strength of character. Seeing them in their youth reminds us of our commonality with them, as opposed to seeing their disabilities first. That continues to be an issue in how we relate to people with disabilities. We often see the wheelchair first and only discover the person in it later. We all fall into such perceptions. This film gives us a chance to see things differently.
Photos courtesy of Netflix