Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Their special camp and beyond

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Netflix documentary film “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”, which received the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, presents an extraordinary tale of empowerment and resilience. At the beginning, it merely seems to be about one very special camp for young individuals with disabilities, but then it goes further than that as showing us how many of these young people were considerably changed by what they experienced at that camp and subsequently went all the way for more legal rights for them in the world outside, and I must say that there are a number of genuinely powerful human moments which touched me a lot during my viewing.

The documentary begins with a series of episodic moments involved with Camp Jened in 1971. Since it was established in the Catskills in the 1950s, Camp Jened had been a summer haven for young people with disabilities for several decades, and a number of various interviewees including co-director/co-producer James Lebrecht tell us about how much the camp was filled with that free-spirited mood of the 1960s when they came to the camp in 1971. Thanks to their open-minded camp counselors who were always ready for support and encouragement, they were all allowed to be simply themselves rather than defined and limited by their disabilities, and, needless to say, that was something most of them had never experienced before.

Fondly remembering their good times at Camp Jened, Lebrecht and other interviewees are also pretty frank about how they became far more active with their sexuality during that time. As filled with more spirit and confidence, they and other adolescent kids at the camp did not hesitate from their growing urge and interest, and the camp counselors did not mind that at all, though this subsequently led to a rather amusing hygienic problem. In case of Denise Sherer Jacobson, who has been afflicted with cerebral palsy since her birth, she happened to get romantically involved with a boy with the similar degree of cerebral palsy, and there is a funny and poignant moment which shows us how inseparable they have been since their first encounter at the camp.

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And there was Judith Heumann, a camp counselor full of feisty spirit despite being wheelchair-bound after suffering polio during her childhood years. As approaching closer to the kids under her supervision, she certainly set a good example to them, and she continued to be active after her time at Camp Jened. When she could not get a license to teach just because of her disability, she promptly filed a suit against the Board of Education in New York, and she later became one of the leading activists demanding the legal guarantee of civil rights for the disabled to the US federal government.

The second half of the documentary focuses on how Heumann and many other persons with disabilities fought and struggled hard for getting their civil rights legally guaranteed, and it is particularly moving to observe that many of former Camp Jened members joined this social fight along with thousands of other disabled people. It is clear that they became more aware of inequality and discrimination in the outside world via their empowering experiences at Camp Jened, and, like Heumann, they were quite determined to get what they need for living a life just like non-disabled people.

And they happened to be in a right moment for that. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the American society and people became conscious of civil rights more than ever, and Heumann and her fellow activists received lots of support from many different minority social groups during their sit-in demonstration in San Francisco, 1977. When they happened to run out of food as their demonstration was extended longer than expected, local Black Panther members willingly provided them more food at the last minute, and one lesbian couple later volunteered to give them a precious opportunity to wash their hair.

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Of course, the US federal government and those high-ranking officials at the top of the system were not so willing to take actions for changes as making superficial excuses, and it is often infuriating for us to see how inert and stubborn the US federal government was at that time. In the end, the US federal government accepted the demand from Heumann and her fellow activists mainly due to an unexpected happy coincidence, but then they had to fight more until their civil rights were fully guaranteed in 1990.

It was indeed a long, difficult fight for these and many other disabled people in US, but that did lead to considerable changes in their daily life as shown at the end of the documentary. While observing this, I was reminded of when I saw a disabled passenger slowly getting on a bus with some assistance in the middle of my Chicago trip in April 2010. I took it for granted without much thought, but now I see that such a thing was possible thanks to their tenacious struggle during that time.

On the whole, “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” vividly and powerfully conveys to us an overlooked but significant part of the American civil rights history, and Lebrecht and his co-director/co-producer Nichole Newnham deserve some commendation for the competent and respectful handling of their human subjects. In my inconsequential opinion, it is definitely one of the best documentaries of this year, and, considering how much I was enlightened and elevated during my viewing, I will not be surprised if it is mentioned again in the Oscar season around the end of this year.

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