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The disability community has a lot to teach a world in crisis, say the directors of Crip Camp

The award-winning documentary is now on Netflix — and it’s more relevant than ever.

Judy Heumann speaks into a microphone from her wheelchair in black-and-white footage from Crip Camp.
Activist Judy Heumann in Crip Camp, which is now on Netflix.
HolLynn D’Lil / Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Crip Camp starts out as a movie about a place: Camp Jened, an almost magical-seeming “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies,” as the film’s co-director (and former camper) Jim Lebrecht explains early on. Located in the Catskills a few hours north of New York City, Camp Jened was a place for teens with all kinds of disabilities (including those from polio and cerebral palsy) to spend time together and experience what it might be like to live in a world that was welcoming to them. It was transformative.

Soon, Crip Camp (subtitled “A Disability Revolution”) becomes a chronicle of a movement, sparked by the young people whose lives were changed by their experience in that place. In the 1970s, Americans with disabilities could be refused enrollment in schools, asked to leave public places, denied jobs for which they were qualified, and met daily with barriers to living a life like anyone else. Jened campers had found that they were respected and viewed as whole people at camp. A speech impediment due to palsy was no reason for the group not to listen to your opinions. Everyone counted.

And, armed with a new perspective for how the world could be, many of those teens went on to join the radical disability rights movement. Some ended up in Berkeley as young adults, advocating for legislation that would require public places to be accessible to everyone and that would prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. Crip Camp shows how the vision that young Jened attendees experienced at camp — a world that was open to everyone — led them to become activists and community organizers.

Crip Camp, which was an opening-night selection at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, is part of Barack and Michelle Obama’s slate of Netflix programming via their production company Higher Ground (following in the footsteps of 2020 Oscar winner American Factory). It’s buoyant and inspiring, a tale of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.

With the film now streaming on Netflix, I spoke with Lebrecht and co-director Nicole Newnham by phone about its debut in a world where the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has changed the conversation around disability in the workplace, the wisdom the disabled community can offer to Hollywood, and more.

Nicole Newnham and Jim Lebrecht, directors of Crip Camp.
Sacha Maric / Netflix

Alissa Wilkinson

I was in the audience for Crip Camp’s premiere at Sundance in January. The world has changed a bit in the time since that premiere. Do you think your hopes for what the film might accomplish have changed too?

Nicole Newnham

We’ve been really excited about the potential for this universal, human story and the incredible history that the film relates to wake more people up to the power of the disability community and the power of disability activists and organizers. For a long time, activists with disabilities have been organizing and making great change online, because for many people with disabilities, that’s where they can operate from. Many people deal with being home-bound in the disability community. There’s a lot of innovation and expertise out there that already people are starting to draw on.

I think we’re in a unique and interesting position, able to continue organizing and supporting the movement and bringing people into the movement online — which is where people will be, at the moment.

Jim Lebrecht

What everybody’s kind of needing to do and all of a sudden adopting — like working from home or communicating via Zoom — is something that a lot of people in the community already have been doing. And it’s also been an accommodation that people have asked for for a long time. [It used to be,] “Gee, I’d like to be able to work from home on certain days, as my situation prevents me from coming to the office.” “Oh no, we can’t do that, there’s no way to do that!” Now, all of a sudden there’s a shift: “Oh, yeah, we can do that.”

So I think if there’s any kind of silver lining here, it’s that ways of accommodating people who may not be able to travel will not be looked upon as something outside of the realm of reasonable accommodation, but as a proven way of working. We know how to do this.

Alissa Wilkinson

It feels as if the disability community has been asking for these work-from-home opportunities, but it took “everyone’s” health being at risk for companies to realize those were possible. People who are disabled seem too often to be virtually invisible.

Jim Lebrecht

There are two things there. One of them is thinking about what disabled people encounter every day. But the flip side of that is looking at what disabled people are capable of doing that people haven’t really been considering. Involve people from our community in discussions outside of disability, not having it be so siloed just within our “thing.” We have a perspective, a way of looking at the world, that’s really valuable.

The film certainly talks about what we struggle and fight for. There’s still so much work to be done when it comes to stigma and combatting attitudes. If those things don’t change, if they don’t continue to morph, then no law on the books will really matter to anybody. It won’t have that much weight.

Campers at Camp Jened, as seen in Crip Camp.
Steve Honigsbaum/Sundance Institute

Nicole Newnham

As a non-disabled person, I experienced the eye-opening nature of Crip Camp myself, in getting to know Jim and getting to know the community and working on the project. I think that sense of invisibility you’re talking about is such a serious issue. It’s perpetuated by the discrimination and ableism that exists in society.

When we were getting ready to premiere the film, we had eight wheelchair users in the film who were coming to Sundance. We knew we would not only have the folks in the film who are wheelchair users [but also] a lot of excited people from the community coming, and that they would expect that, because it was a film by a disabled activist and about disability rights, that it would be accessible. So you might have 15 or more wheelchair users coming to the theaters.

But that’s not a situation that any theater is willing to accommodate, which is just a little bit overwhelming when you think about it. The reason for that is the invisibility. Some people would say, “Well, we wouldn’t normally expect to get more than six wheelchair users coming at one time.” Well, why? Because going to the theater is such an incredibly frustrating experience. [Wheelchair users] expect it’s going to be frustrating and that the access is going to be impossible, so they don’t go. Then people tend to not even think about disability communities or groups of people with disabilities going out to do things or come into their event, and they’re not thinking about making the rooms accessible. It’s kind of a vicious cycle. That is one of the things that we hope we can help to change.

Jim Lebrecht

There are a lot of reasons that people prefer to stay home. Personally, as someone with a disability, if I find a theater that has a number of different wheelchair spots and it’s in a good location, that’s a theater that I’ll wait for a film to come to.

It is a little bit rare that you have a film that draws a lot of people with disabilities at one time, so I’ll give movie theater owners that. But there was a little bit of a concern about how we were going to accommodate when we were doing screenings with a large number of folks. Places like Sundance really worked with us a great deal to try to create some more wheelchair seats for their screenings.

The need for improving accessibility is really, really important. San Francisco has got a lovely large movie palace, the Castro, and the wheelchair seating is really horrible. It has been a little bit difficult to deal with to try to effect some better change there. That’s a problem for a lot of film festivals, but we’re raising awareness, for sure.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right now the film business itself is obviously facing a lot of challenges, too. Do you think the process of making this movie, of working in the business, has given you some wisdom about how the industry might put better, more accessible practices into place when films are in production? Or wisdom that the community of people with disabilities has to offer the film business?

Jim Lebrecht

I think that if Crip Camp had the success that we hoped that it would have — like what we saw in the Sundance audience reaction in January and at the True/False Film Festival in March — that Hollywood would realize there’s a market out there for stories like this. They’ll need to realize that Crip Camp is just one story about a specific group of people in a specific time, and there’s hundreds if not thousands of other stories out there, from all the different facets of the disability community. We cut across all strata of society.

If they realize that you can get away from these old tropes — about the person who acquires a disability and wants to be killed, other negative and tired tropes — that there’s actually room for romantic comedies and thrillers and all sorts of other films around disability. It doesn’t have to be that there’s just one sole focus of films. People with disabilities are part of society. Most of us have lives like everybody else. Be brave, you know?

Denise Jacobson and Neil Jacobson in the film Crip Camp.

There’s an audience out here. There’s a market for this kind of material. That’s also going to make [the entertainment business] open up their accessibility for playwrights and screenwriters and actors and producers and editors — you really need people from the [disabled] community in all areas of production and development, and in front of the camera.

So many of us really have a very harsh reaction against able-bodied or non-disabled actors playing roles as people with disabilities. That role should go to somebody with a disability. But yet, there’s not the ability for people to become box office draws and stars, because we’re not getting the roles. We don’t have the same on-ramp to a successful career.

The talent is out there. The talent is absolutely out there. It’s a matter of opening up the doors so people can get those opportunities.

Alissa Wilkinson

One thing I love about Crip Camp is that it’s both revealing and inspirational. It’s about a community coming together to effect huge change, while being totally unapologetic about their aims. The story has an inspirational arc.

Nicole Newnham

What Jim and I always felt is that we wanted the film to bring people into the world of Camp Jened, to give them that experience themselves: arriving at camp, checking out the scene, maybe feeling a little bit uncomfortable, not sure what’s going on, not sure if they speak the language. Then, over time, they’d come to feel like this is a world that is fun and joyous and liberating for them as viewers, just like it was for Jim. Jim’s personal story would bring you into that.

The question was, how do you connect that experience to the history that comes later? Initially we had a lot more modern-day footage woven through. But over time we found enough archival material, not only of the history itself, but also the people from Camp Jened at the marches, and in the protests, We realized that we had this ability to really show that ripple effect of Jened across time by keeping on that historical trajectory.

Typically, you’d structure a film like this by teasing at the beginning what’s going to happen at the end, so you’d know you’re watching a film that goes beyond the camp experience. What we tried to do instead is just let you into the camp, let you discover it for yourself, and not really know where the film is going to go. Then you have that experience yourself of watching how it plays out.

That [tactic] depended on the first part of the film at the camp feeling incredibly immersive and vérité and natural. But it was actually constructed really, really painstakingly. There are those a-ha moments, like when Larry the camp director says, “We discovered the problem wasn’t people with disabilities, it was our problem,” then you the viewer are like, “Ah, yeah.” If you’re a non-disabled viewer, you might think, “Oh yeah, he’s talking about me.” There’s just those moments, where the audience is asked to do some work, but there’s enough love and joy and humor and fun to kind of carry them through that first immersive experience of camp.

Alissa Wilkinson

Jim, there’s so much terrific archival footage in Crip Camp that’s delightful to watch. But having lived through a lot of this yourself, it must have been an interesting and emotional experience to go back and relive it now.

Jim Lebrecht

It was very surreal. It was like finding your home movies that you didn’t know your parents had shot. It enabled me to go back to camp — looking at hours and hours’ worth of footage from people’s videos, hoping I’m going to see people I remembered. It was incredible seeing me and [fellow camper] Nancy together, seeing the counselors I really loved who I know are no longer with us.

Bittersweet is a good way of describing what the experience was like. It unleashed some of the memories that I had buried in my head about what it was like at that camp. I could remember what the place smelled like. I could remember what the place looked like, what it sounded like. I really wish I could go back. There are parts of almost everybody’s youth that they go, “Gosh, those were really great days. I wish I could go back for 24 hours.” I feel that way.

A scene from Crip Camp at Camp Jened.
Patti Smolian / Netflix

Alissa Wilkinson

Crip Camp is on the Obamas’ slate of releases at Netflix, and given its activist gist, that makes a lot of sense. Are there lessons about activism that you hope viewers come away with?

Nicole Newnham

I think this film is a blueprint for grassroots organizing, for how individuals can help to make a difference. Both of us feel like that’s a really important lesson to be injecting into the world right now.

For me, one of the most profound things about this [experience of making the film] is that within the camp, people learned that power came from listening to each other and believing each other. We have to say “I see you” and “I believe you.” I don’t know what it’s like to be blind, and I don’t work in special ed, but if you’re telling me that’s your experience, I believe you. I think about that scene at the camp where everyone is sitting around the table listening to Nancy Rosenblum, and believing that what she has to say is valid; I feel like that’s a lot of what we’ve lost in our society, both the optimism that people can make a difference and the art of creating community by listening and trusting and believing. Those are some of the things I’m excited for people to take away from the film.

Jim Lebrecht

I totally agree. We’re getting really fired up after seeing the film, seeing people who are becoming interested in activism. If you can take away from the film that this, on some level, is also a universal story, then it’s made its point.

Crip Camp premiered on Netflix on March 25.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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