Crip Camp (4 stars)

Crip Camp

credit: Patti Smolian

Spirited and moving disability-themed documentary focusing on a transformative summer camp

In the 60s and 70s, in upstate New York, a revolution was brewing. No, not Woodstock but Camp Jened, a summer getaway for adults and children with disabilities that was started in 1952 and, by 1971, had become a playground of happy rebellion, where young people were given free rein simply to be teenagers. Directed by Emmy winner Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, the latter of whom was born with cerebral palsy and was a regular at the camp in the early 70s, this fascinating documentary captures the utopian idealism of Jened (which closed in 1977) and, later, the world-changing activism of its inspiring attendees.

Executively produced by Barack and Michelle Obama (through their production company Higher Ground), the film is anchored by LeBrecht's own experiences; not just his days as a happy camper, but also his personal recollections of the extreme barriers and prejudices faced by disabled people. It combines anarchic archive video of the messy, flirty, rambunctious reality of camp, shot by the People's Video Theatre project across two heady summers when LeBrecht was there – a combination of dinnertime debates, wheelchair races and crab infestations – with more sombre but no less passionate talking head interviews. There's also often-distressing news footage surrounding the appalling treatment of disabled children, and the unending fight for their equality.

What is immediately clear is that, for these young people, their time at Jened confirmed what they already knew to be true: that they should not be defined by their abilities, and should be offered the same opportunities as everyone else. Many of them took this unwavering belief into equal rights advocacy. Led by Judy Heumann, then a ballsy teen camp counsellor and now an international activist, they organised a 28-day federal building sit-in in California to highlight the lack of disability rights legislation. Limited or non-existent access to many buildings and public transport, they rightly argued, kept the disabled from being active members of society.

By sheer strength of determination, campaigners such as Heumann were central to pushing through legislation that has changed the world for disabled people – kerb ramps for wheelchairs being an essential example. They also forced governments and society to focus on the individual, rather than the disability; something which is at the heart of this spirited and moving documentary, which also serves as a timely reminder that the battle for equal rights rages on.

Available to watch on Netflix from Wed 25 Mar.

Crip Camp

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • US
  • Directed by: Nicole Newnham, James LeBrecht

Documentary about Camp Jened, a summer getaway for adults and children with disabilities that ran in upstate New York in the late 60s and 70s. It combines archive footage with talking heads to show a place where young people learned that they should not be defined by their disabilities, and many became equal rights…