“Crip Camp” Highlights the Humanity of Disability

Crip Camp Photo: Steve Honigsbaum

This feel-good doc charts the lives and trajectories of disabled teenagers in the ’60s, and how one summer camp changed their lives forever.

In any introductory American History course, one will learn of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and how its principles and strategies interacted and cross-pollinated with other activist movements like the anti-war protests of the Vietnam War and the hippie counterculture. But you’ll likely find naught but the briefest mention of the Disabled Rights Movement — the quest to pass legislation granting accessibility and basic rights to disabled Americans of all stripes. Crip Camp, the latest release from the Obamas’ production company (following the Oscar-winning American Factory), concerns itself with this largely-ignored movement, as viewed chiefly through a group of kids who just wanted to go to summer camp.

Camp Jened, the titular “crip camp,” was formed in the early ‘50s as a summer sleepaway camp for the disabled, one of the only camps of its kind. By 1971, it was one of the few that remained for disabled kids to form some of the most essential experiences many able-bodied kids associate with growing up. Characterized by counselor and camper alike as a “freaky” place — that being a good thing in the vernacular of the moment — it offered an achingly average camp experience to teens and twenty-somethings that never would otherwise be granted such an opportunity.

Too often American society and its corresponding media tend to cast the disabled as fragile saintly figures — individuals to be valued in the abstract, largely devoid of human desires and drives. We must care for and protect them, but we don’t really bother to know much about them. As a result, much of the documentary’s narrative zing comes from the camp scenes and their corresponding talking-head interviews. 

Crip Camp
Courtesy Netflix

Culled from footage shot by People’s Video Theatre, it reveals a group of people rarely heard in all their lumps and all glory. Longtime sound editor Jim Lebrecht — a camper at the time and co-director of the film alongside Nicole Newnham — seized the camera from the Theatre to take a tour of the camp. 

The result is what you’d expect from a 15-year-old: flirting with inappropriate innuendos, full of in-jokes, and trying desperately to be cool. And that goes for all the campers and counselors. They are goofy, frustrated, hungry for (and frightened of) the prospect of adult independence. And, perhaps most importantly, gloriously horny.

During the film’s most candid and affecting segment, campers recall their sexual experiences at the camp and beyond. Wisely, the documentarians never try to romanticize these summer encounters. Lebrecht recalls his first girlfriend Nancy and that he loved her before puncturing it with, “or as in love as a 15-year-old can be anyway.”

Even better are the bracingly honest husband/wife team of Neil and Denise Sherer Jacobson, who share ribald tales of their escapades with other people at the camp full of “profane” words like “cock” and “fuck.” With unselfconscious ease, they reject the societal assumptions that disabled people aren’t just unable to be sexual beings, but disinterested in sex. The fact that they’re also old enough now to be grandparents (and in fact might be; their son is 33) only increases the delight implicit in their rejection of stereotypes.

Crip Camp also makes sure to not just focus on heteronormative sexual interests. Steve Hofmann, a former counselor, gets the spotlight in a Berkeley drag show, stripping to “Sweet Transvestite from Transylvania” and indicating his preference for well-hung men. Again, the doc doesn’t attempt to gloss up a deep subculture, but lets the footage roll uninterrupted and without judgment.

They are goofy, frustrated, hungry for (and frightened of) the prospect of adult independence. And, perhaps most importantly, gloriously horny.

The film grows bigger — and it must be said, a bit drier — as it follows the campers as they become increasingly politically active and aware. Elevating activist Judith Heumann to a starring role, the audience watches as she becomes the leader of the Disability Rights movement. A near month-long sit-in in San Francisco and a trip to Washington, DC to shadow President Jimmy Carter and United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. become the centerpiece of this “act” of the documentary. 

While admittedly lacking the kind of anarchic energy of its first segment, Crip Camp is insightful in the ways those in power feign sympathy while avoiding any kind of real action. But Crip Camp brings these experiences into greater relief when it catches up with some of the surviving members of Camp Jened after they return to the Catskills for another look at the camp. Interlacing footage of those who have already passed away prevents the reunion from feeling like a  feel-good victory lap.

Like any group of people in or near their seventies, the members of Camp Jened have a near lifetime of victories and disappointments to look back on. And, unfortunately, far too many friends who didn’t make it all the way through. 

While Crip Camp is not a perfect effort, its honesty about its participants and their world gives it an undeniable potency right to the last moment.

Crip Camp is currently available on Netflix.

Crip Camp Trailer:

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