#FrancisOnFilm: Crip Camp

30 April 2020

Movie theaters are dark; and Netflix subscriptions are up. Maybe you, like me, are both eager for all this to be over, and apprehensive about what the future might bring. For a dose of optimism, reflections on freedom, and a very good film, check out Crip Camp: a Disability Revolution. I had the good fortune to see it with a very vociferous and appreciative crowd at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City, where it also won the Audience Award. 


Directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, the film draws on extensive archival footage from Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities that became a countercultural haven in the early 1970s, and from the twenty-six day occupation of the San Francisco Federal Building in 1977 by disability rights activists, including many former campers. It weaves together the archival footage and interviews with some of the campers today, like occupation organizer and lifelong disability rights activist Judy Heumann, and director LeBrecht, who was himself a Jened camper. 


Crip Camp begins with footage from Jened, located down the road from Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains. Campers wore tie-dyed t-shirts, cooked, had sex, played music, swam, danced, and carried one another when they could. They had hierarchies too—the “polios” were at the top, and the “cerebral palsies” were at the bottom. Returning to their regular lives was often a terrible disappointment of inaccessible schools, unemployment, and unwelcoming communities, and the film depicts this too.  


A number of the Jened campers ended up involved in the Independent Living Movement in Berkeley; the film has footage from this period as well. There, they continued their support for one another and for others they came to know. The power of their solidarity became apparent when the federal government, with Joseph Califano—head of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter—stalled in issuing the regulations needed to implement the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehab Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in all federally funded programs and became the prototype for the Americans with Disabilities Act. But without regulations to enforce it, the Rehab Act had no impact. The 1977 occupation of the San Francisco Federal Building ultimately succeeded in getting these regulations signed into law.


Crip Camp illustrates in many ways the fundamental premise of the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us without us.” In the film, people with very different disabilities work together and improvise to solve problems. Campers don’t always express affection in the way other teenagers might, but they express affection very effectively indeed. They don’t do things in the way other people tell them they should, but they get things done. Campers go on to have major careers, marry, and have children. Ability, their lives make clear, does not require conformity to prescribed expectations.


But the freedom of Camp Jened was not the liberty to do whatever you choose, so long as you don’t hurt others. It was not the libertarian idea of liberty—to be free from constraints or duties to others that you have not yourself chosen, so long as you don’t lie to them, cheat them, or (in the unforgettable image of Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia) leave a knife in their back. It’s freedom built on solidarity: the commitment to support one another that enables each to do more than they could do alone. It’s the kind of freedom we need in these tough days of Covid-19.