Crip Camp

In early 1950’s America, a summer camp for disabled teenagers was established in the rolling hills of upstate New York, just a hop, skip, and a jump down the road from the future Woodstock site. Little did the camp’s founders know that a couple of decades later their Camp Janed would become the birthplace of Section 504 of the rehabilitation act of 1973 and later the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) which was signed into law by President Bush in 1990.

"Check it out to learn how the most innocent of beginnings can literally change the world"

That’s where the inspirational Netflix documentary Crip Camp picks up. Via grainy black and white found footage, co-director James LeBrecht remembers his days spent back in the ‘70s at the somewhat rundown camp and recounts his life dealing with the effects of spina bifida. We learn from interviews with the campers that Camp Janed was a place where they could just be kids, surrounded by others like them – something they couldn’t do anywhere else.

We are reminded of the hardships children with disabilities faced on a daily basis in those days, including the fact that they weren’t even allowed to go to public schools. It was believed that they would be a distraction to the non-disabled students.

But mostly, the film’s first half is light-hearted and even humorous at times as we watch the teens discover a shared identity and a newfound sense of fellowship and inclusion as they played games, hung out, and shared common experiences of hardships. Several of them even mention the barriers faced from over-protective parents. A couple of the campers – particularly LeBrecht and Judy Heumann – begin to show signs of leadership within the Janed community, hinting at bigger things to come from the camp.Crip Camp

Then the story pivots. Following the closure of the camp, many of its alumni followed the Hippie movement to Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area where we see Heumann has become a prominent activist for the rights of the disabled. Due to their efforts, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act: Section 504 which would ban discrimination against the disabled.

However without a mechanism for enforcement, it became clear that a more comprehensive act was needed along with better enforcement. Taking a chapter from MLK and the civil rights activists of the 1960s, Heumann et al, staged protests and sit-ins until finally getting the full attention of Congress, which would eventually pass the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

Crip Camp is a fascinating and inspirational history lesson about something we didn’t even know had such an interesting story to tell. The film’s biggest “Wow” moment comes when the realization sinks in that it took nearly three full decades after African Americans received their civil rights for those with physical disabilities to receive the same privileges and freedoms. In addition, how did we not already know this backstory of the ADA? Just goes to show how little attention has been paid to the plight of those with disabilities.

The film isn’t necessarily groundbreaking in its structure or appearance. In fact, it follows the same basic talking-head-interspersed-with-archival-footage narrative that many well-known documentaries have carried to great success. What sets Crip Camp apart is its inspirational subject matter and its fascinating cast of characters who allow us to see past their disabilities and recognize that inside a broken and malfunctioning body is a brain and a personality with thoughts, ideas, dreams and goals – just like ours.

Crip Camp comes from Executive Producers Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, and is currently playing on Netflix. Check it out to learn how the most innocent of beginnings can literally change the world.

4/5 stars


Crip Camp


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Crip Camp

MPAA Rating: R for some language including sexual references.
106 mins
: James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham
James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham
Larry Allison, Dennis Billups, William Bronston
: Documentary
A Disability Revolution
Memorable Movie Quote: "Sometimes you couldn't tell who the counselor or who was the camper."
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Release Date:
March 25, 2020
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Synopsis: Down the road from Woodstock, a revolution blossomed at a ramshackle summer camp for teenagers with disabilities, transforming their lives and igniting a landmark movement.


Crip Camp