The Netflix documentary, executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, is groundbreaking in its depiction of people with disabilities and their fight for civil rights. Here's why.

By Tyler Aquilina
March 21, 2020 at 11:05 AM EDT

Crip Camp

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Keah Brown wept uncontrollably when she saw the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

“I couldn't believe that that was the first time I had seen a disability narrative that wasn't steeped in self-hatred,” explains Brown, a millennial writer and activist who has cerebral palsy. “It was just really refreshing to laugh, and cry, and to get excited about a future where disabled people can tell stories like this one, and not have to hide it under the guise of, ‘How does this make a non-disabled person feel better about themselves?’”

Many viewers might feel similar emotions when Crip Camp hits Netflix on March 25. Executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, the film tells a twofold story. It starts with footage from the 1970s, at Camp Jened, “a summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies” in New York’s Catskills; teenagers with disabilities were welcomed into the countercultural community there. The film then follows those campers through subsequent years, as they come away from Camp Jened invigorated to fight for their rights.

Judy Heumann, a disability rights activist and a former Camp Jened counselor, described to EW “a group of people there at the camp who were going to be going to college, and were discussing, 'What was our future gonna look like?' We began to think about not only what could be, but what we had a responsibility to help make happen.”

“We were still in the Age of Aquarius and seeing all these different liberation movements going around,” recalls Crip Camp co-director Jim LeBrecht, another Jened alum. “We would talk about the world around us, and conversations would start about our liberation, and what we can't do and why, and 'What can we do about it?'”

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Inspired by the various other social causes sweeping the country — from civil rights to women's rights — many of the campers became dedicated activists as they entered college, taking part in protests and demonstrations. For example, there was 1977’s 504 Sit-in, spearheaded by Heumann, which the film covers in detail; such efforts helped advance accessibility and anti-discrimination laws for Americans with disabilities.

Crip Camp explores these efforts with a depth and intimacy rarely, if ever, devoted to the disability rights movement in a mainstream film. “At Sundance, the response from people in the audience was very significant. They didn't understand why they didn't know...that there was a civil rights movement in the disability community, or anything about its evolution,” Heumann says. “I think the film is really important in relation to advancing these discussions.”

“There's kind of a genre of ’60s and ’70s films about people who had this utopian dream and then it all collapsed and burned around them,” co-director Nicole Newnham says. “I think it’s a profound thing that it was this group of teenagers who were being so discounted in society, who took those ideals and really did figure out a way to change the world.”

But the time spent at Camp Jened (almost half the film’s runtime) is just as groundbreaking. Onscreen stories about people with disabilities, beyond “inspirational stories or stories of tragedy,” as LeBrecht puts it, remain all too rare (think of I Am Sam or Me Before You). In this archival footage — shot by the People's Video Theater — young people with disabilities are seen simply hanging out together: falling in love (and lust), playing games, smoking pot, playing and listening to music.

“Through the archival footage, the viewer gets to kind of go to camp too, and make friends too, and get an understanding of all these diverse points of view that people with disabilities are coming from,” Newnham explains.

“This film is humanizing disabled people for someone who thinks, ‘Well, I would never want to live like that,’” Brown notes. “It really allows people to question their own preconceived notions about what it means to live with a disability, what it means to be a person first, who lives with a disability.”

Even as diversity and representation have become a Hollywood cause célèbre over the last decade, disability representation remains an issue often overshadowed by conversations about racial, gender, and LGBTQ causes. As Heumann wrote in a 2019 report on disability in media, Road Map for Inclusion, “It is no longer acceptable to not have women at the table. It is no longer acceptable to not have people of color at the table. But no one thinks to see if the table is accessible.”

“I think there's just a lack of people understanding the enormous depth of stories that people in the disabled community [have to tell],” LeBrecht says. “Ours is just one story from one period of time about a specific group of people. Disability cuts across every single strata of society, and within each of those intersections there are amazing stories that are waiting to be heard, waiting to be told.”

For Brown — a black, queer woman with a disability — the path forward begins with people being willing to engage with the disability community, and “being brave enough to be willing to mess up and still keep going. I genuinely think that people are so worried about saying the wrong thing or using the wrong word, that they don’t know where to begin,” she says. “I think once we can get past the initial fear, we can get people like me into these writer’s rooms, and we'll have more nuanced, fleshed-out representations of disability. It’s like, help me push the door open, get a little doorstop, and let everyone through.”

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