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The Directors of ‘Crip Camp’ Want You to Know Disability Rights Will Affect You, Too

Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham break down the importance of giving first-person perspective to a movement through long-lost summer camp footage (and a crabs outbreak)

Railings, ramps, curb cuts, elevators, larger bathroom stalls — these are all necessities that people with disabilities have had to fight for. They’re such simple amenities, ones that able-bodied people use almost every day without even noticing. But there was a time not that long ago, when they didn’t exist. And without them, many disabled folks couldn’t participate in simple activities like taking public transit, voting at the polls or even participating in a classroom of their peers. In fact, without them, many couldn’t participate in society at all. 

Which is to say, the needs of people with disabilities went overlooked for decades. But in the 1970s, there was a place in Upstate New York where young people with cerebral palsy, in wheelchairs, with spina bifida, affected by polio or any other variety of disabilities could feel like they weren’t so different: Camp Jened, or as it was jokingly called by some campers, Crip Camp. And here, the beginnings of the disabled rights movement took hold. 

Film and theater sound designer Jim LeBrecht was a camper there. Together with producer and director Nicole Newnham, Crip Camp tells the story of Camp Jened, the radical experience of simply being able to be a horny, pot-smoking teen at summer camp in an otherwise restricted world and how this initiated major protests that culminated in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibiting discrimination based on disability. Crip Camp documents the movement with revived footage from the camp and protests as well as interviews with former campers today. 

With the movie now streaming on Netflix, I spoke to LeBrecht and Newnham about how the camp’s crab outbreak made the documentary possible; the state of the movement; and how the film serves as an exercise in listening for the non-disabled audience. 

One of the fascinating things about this documentary is that it couldn’t have happened without all of the existing Camp Jened footage. How did the two of you connect to piece it all together?
Newnham: Jim is a sound designer and sound mixer that I’ve worked with for 15 years, and we worked kind of intensely together on three previous feature docs. Over time, we started talking more and more about disability and disability rights. I think Jim was getting frustrated spending every day mixing social justice documentaries, but not seeing a lot of important stories out of the disability community, or even representation of the disability community at all, really.

And so eventually, I got lucky enough that he started pitching me ideas, and he said at one point, “What I really wanted to see is a story about my summer camp.” And he sent me a Facebook page that had a bunch of the still photos that you see in the film. Even just those photos made my heart pound and made me get excited, because I realized this incredible story of Jim’s summer camp — I think, Jim, this is why you thought it would be a good film, too — was a window and a way in to seeing disability and understanding it that was really, really new. 

We were talking about doing re-creations and all of these other things, then Jim mentioned that this radical video coalition had visited the camp, and wouldn’t it be amazing if they had some footage? He had remembered that they’d strapped the portapack on the back of his wheelchair and handed him the camera, and that became the Holy Grail. I would just stay up at night researching online, and I finally found this little ad in the back of a digitized magazine about early video pioneers from the 1970s, and it said Crabs Outbreak at Camp Jened for the Handicapped by the People’s Video Theater. I was able to track down one of the remaining guys from the People’s Video Theater — he had a kind of anarchist bookstore in San Francisco.

He got back to us and said, “Well, we have five and a half hours of the footage from the camp that we shot, and we think it’s in pretty good condition. We just started digitizing it in San Francisco.” So they agreed to work with us, and we got this magical hard drive of all of that footage. That was when we really knew we had something extraordinary.

Jim, how much did your frustration at the lack of documentaries focusing on disability rights inform the tone of this film?
LeBrecht: I certainly wasn’t quite seeing the kind of story that I felt would be really impactful. So in regards to what Nicole and I aimed to achieve, this was an inside look at disability, because so many [other documentaries on disability rights], they’re coming from the outside looking in [at] historically what had happened, not from the first-person POV around what is the experience like, what is our history and what has it taken to get us to where we are today. So I think knowing a little bit about the limited landscape that was out there before, we decided we’d be different and more all-encompassing. In the long run, it’s as if the story revealed itself and the more we could be taking it personally, the more you could culturally impact what it was going to be.

In terms of your time at the camp itself, I’m curious about the camp enrollment process — how parents found out about this camp, and how much it costs. Can you just explain that a bit?
LeBrecht: My way into the camp was literally being at another camp. Then, one summer, a bunch of people from Jened went to our camp because their dining room burnt down during the winter. But moms and dads, like my mom, would get on the phone and call and deal with the pre-internet way of just trying to find out from other people what the options might be for camp. I don’t recall exactly what it cost, but I know that Camp Jened did have scholarships for people, which made it accessible to a lot of people. Some couldn’t have gotten out of their homes or institutions for a few weeks otherwise. 

Newnham: There was a real desire on the part of the camp staff to try to make it possible for people that otherwise couldn’t afford to come to the camp to come there. They even went so far as starting a program to bring in campers from some of the institutions nearby, like Willowbrook, which really struck us — just the thought that so many young people were living in such horrific conditions and institutions like this, at the same time as something as freeing and wonderful as Camp Jened was going on.

Was there any type of government funding for kids with disabilities at that time? And did that manifest itself in Camp Jened at all?
LeBrecht: I can’t really speak to that well. I do know that apparently there was a weekly bingo game in New York. That was one of the fundraising things for the camp.

Newnham: My sense was it wasn’t government funded, but I can’t say for sure either.

So institutions like Willowbrook were pretty much the extent to which there was government funding for people with disabilities at that time?
LeBrecht: Well, Willowbrook was kind of an extreme in regard to being warehoused [forced to live in inhumane, overcrowded conditions in institutions]. It’d definitely be publicly funded. I went to special-ed classes for kindergarten and first grade. Things were progressing as I was growing up — things like the vocational rehab and helping to pay for college or education or things that were available for people. But I’m no expert.

In some of the older footage at the camp, one of the campers has a severe speech impediment where it can be challenging to figure out exactly what she’s saying. There’s one scene where she’s speaking and there’s no captions — was that an intentional listening exercise, or was it simply because, a moment later, one of the other campers kind of translates what she’s saying? I’m just curious about the decision there to not include captions for that moment.
Newnham: Yeah, that was very intentional and something we thought about from the very beginning in making the film, because that scene struck both of us as something very powerful. We thought if we could construct the first act of the film, or the camp part of the film, in such a way that it built to that moment, and that if people really understood the power of that moment, we would have achieved something.

Jim, I think you said a couple of the first times you showed people that, out of the context of the rest of the film, they had a hard time watching it because it takes so long for Nancy to talk. When people come to it cold, all they can think about is that they feel bad that they can’t understand her — they almost start to panic. And yet, once you understand the world of the camp and the community that’s been formed and what people are getting out of it and how people are approaching it, you can focus on the fact that it’s so beautiful and everybody’s listening to her.

Then Steve translates for her, and we wanted people to be able to be in that moment themselves, to feel a little uncomfortable and then also look around and notice the beauty of it. It wasn’t clear to us for a while if we were going to be able to make that work, but a lot of people say that for them, that was the most powerful moment in the film. When they really felt that their viewpoint transformed, that’s why.

I think that a lot of people may have very little experience in interacting with people with disabilities, particularly when it comes to listening like that. It’s really powerful and kind of an educational experience for the viewer in listening.
Newnham: I agree. That’s what’s so incredibly amazing about this footage, right? It doesn’t feel like something you’re watching, it feels like an experience that you’re having. I’d previously produced two virtual reality films, and I feel like this is similar to that — you’re entering their world and you’re experiencing that for yourself.

What does the movie tell us about where we’re at with disability rights? What do you think people are still not aware of or not seeing, and what challenges does the disability community still face?
LeBrecht: It’s important for society in general to know that the [Americans with Disabilities Act] wasn’t a panacea, and there’s no legislation to really do that. Until you change society’s attitude, laws can only do so much. What remains to be dealt with is providing the resources for people with disabilities to live independently within their own community. It varies from state to state how many resources one can get so that they don’t wind up in a nursing home — not because they need that kind of care, but simply because there’s not enough resources to allow them to hire the people to help treat them at home. 

My experience being a filmmaker has been how woefully terrible it is to travel by air and that you can’t use your wheelchair on a plane. You have to be transferred to an aisle chair if you can’t walk, like me. You can’t use the bathroom. Until the coronavirus came about, this was how people do business — in person. 

Newnham: I just want to say that the activism didn’t stop in 1990. There’s incredible activists — people like Alice Wong, Stacey Milbern and many other folks who are out there in disability justice today and really taking advantage of social media and online connectedness, and there have been people who have been on the front lines of the struggle over the last decade. What we hope is that the film will be kind of an on-ramp for people, to bring their attention to this stuff and not have them see it as other people doing things — people not like them doing things to help people not like them — but to see and feel how critical all of the struggle is for everybody.

One of the most gratifying things for us is that in the theaters, you’ll hear this sound, kind of like, ‘Ah,’ when the curb cuts get put in, in Berkeley. Because people haven’t looked at curb cuts and thought, ‘Oh thank God there are curb cuts.’ And it was people with disabilities who fought for that, and now that benefits me when I’m pushing my baby stroller, or when I’m rolling my suitcase or whatever. Pretty much everything that disability activists are fighting for is something that’s going to impact us at some point in our life — all of us. That’s one thing that we really hope — that it will help people come to understand that disability is just a part of the variety of the human condition. Most of us will be disabled at some point in our lives, and as Jim said, it’s a club that you can join at any time. So it’s for the good of everyone.

LeBrecht: No amount of kale will stop you from getting hit by a bus.