Review: ‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,’ starring Jim LeBrecht, Judith Heumann, Denise Sherer Jacobson, Corbett O’Toole, Dennis Billups, HolLynn D’Lil and Evan White

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Judith “Judy” Heumann in “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” (Photo by HolLynn D’Lil)

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”

Directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht

Culture Representation: This documentary, which interviews mostly white people and a few African Americans, takes a look at how several key members of the U.S. civil-rights movement for disabled people spent their youth having positive experiences at Camp Jened, an upstate New York activities camp for disabled people.

Culture Clash: People in the documentary talk about fighting against discrimination and for their civil rights.

Culture Audience: “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” will appeal primarily to viewers who want to see a compelling story about an often-ignored civil-rights movement that happened in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s.

Denise Sherer Jacobson and Jim LeBrecht in “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” (Photo by courtesy of Netflix)

The title of “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” is somewhat misleading because the movie is more about the “revolution” than it is about the “camp.” The movie itself is an inspiring but unevenly edited documentary. “Crip Camp” tells the story of how an upstate New York camp (Camp Jened) for disabled youth ended up being a life-changing formative center for several people who went on to become activists in the 1970s and 1980s civil-rights movement for disabled people.

It’s understandable if viewers think that most of the movie is about Camp Jened. It’s not. The story of the camp takes up just the first third of the film. The documentary is narrated by Jim LeBrecht, a Camp Jened alum who co-directed “Crip Camp” with Nicole Newnham. Camp Jened (originally located in Hunter, New York, near the Catskill Mountains) had its first incarnation from 1951 to 1977. What “Crip Camp” doesn’t mention is that Camp Jened re-opened in Rock Hill, New York, and remained in operation from 1980 to 2009. The camp went out of business both times because of financial problems.

LeBrecht, who is a paraplegic because he was born with spina bifida, shares fond memories of the first incarnation of Camp Jened. And so do other former Camp Jened alumni who were either attendees or counselors in the early 1970s, when LeBrecht attended the camp. He first went there in 1971, when he was 15 years old. He says Camp Jened is where he got his first girlfriend, and it was also a place where many of the teenage attendees also had their first sexual experiences, since they were away from their frequently over-protective homes for the first time.

There’s an uneven tone to the film because the Camp Jened part of the movie starts off like an autobiography, but then the latter two-thirds of the movie switch gears, and the film becomes a historical account of the civil-rights movement for disabled people. LeBrecht describes that when he was growing up in New York state, “I wanted to be a part of life, but I didn’t see anyone like me.” When he heard there was a youth camp for disabled people, and the camp was run by hippie types who would probably let the teenagers “smoke dope” with them, Lebrecht says that he thought at the time, “Sign me up!”

LeBrecht says in the documentary that his experience at Camp Jened was the first time in his life that he didn’t feel like an outsider. The disabled attendees were a racially diverse group that included people like LeBrecht who went to schools with able-bodied people, while there were others who were home-schooled or who lived most of the year in institutions.

The camp counselors, also racially diverse, sometimes didn’t have experience with disabled people, but they made up for that lack of experience with compassion and enthusiasm for the job. Two of the former counselors interviewed in the film include Lionel Je’Woodyard and Joe O’Connor, who describes being terrified at first by being around so many disabled people, but he was literally pushed forward by another counselor to get right in the crowd and help as much as he could.

LeBrecht describes how when he first arrived at the camp, he had recently had bladder surgery so he wouldn’t have to wear diapers anymore, but he was self-conscious about having to use a urine drainage bag and he didn’t really want anyone at the camp to find out about it. But his fears subsided when he realized that there were many people at the camp who had much more difficult medical conditions than he had.

The camp part of the documentary has a lot of archival footage (mostly black-and-white) of people at Camp Jened in the early 1970s, including the late Larry Allison, who was the director of Camp Jened at the time. LeBrecht was an aspiring filmmaker even back then, because he’s heard operating the camera and asking interview questions. Some of the other archival footage came from People’s Video Theater, an alternative journalism group.

In the interviews, it’s clear that the teenagers and other young people at the camp have the same interests as any young people would of any era: dating, acceptance and having fun. The only differences are the physical and mental challenges they have and the restrictions placed upon them because of these challenges. Several of the young people who were interviewed talk about feeling frustrated by over-protective parents or by people who underestimate their abilities.

Ann Cupolo Freeman, who was one of the disabled members of the camp in the 1970s, remembers that at the time, it was being like a “Woodstock for disabled people.” Denise Sherer Jacobson, who was also a teenager who went to Camp Jened in the early 1970s, remembers the camp this way: “It was so funky, but it was a utopia.” And funky it was. Some of the archival footage shows how the camp had to be temporarily quarantined because of an outbreak of crabs.

Sherer Jacobson, who has cerebral palsy, says that even among the disabled, there are prejudices and a hierarchy: People with polio are considered at “the top” and people with cerebral palsy are considered at “the bottom.” But her experiences at Camp Jened were ultimately positive: It’s where she met her husband, Paul Jacobson (who also has cerebral palsy and is interviewed in the movie), and they are still married to this day. Sherer Jacobson also talks about how one of her first sexual experiences as a young woman led her to get her master’s degree in human sexuality, partly because she wanted to break untrue stereotypes that people with disabilities are lesser human beings when it comes to sex.

Archival footage at the camp also includes a very outspoken Steve Hoffman, a disabled person who ended up becoming a transvestite. One scene of him in the film shows him later in his adult life doing a striptease in drag to the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” classic song “Sweet Transvestite.” Another alum of Camp Jened in the archival footage is Corbett O’Toole, who became a writer/activist.

But perhaps the most high-profile alum of Camp Jened is Judith “Judy” Heumann, who went on to become a pioneering leader in the civil rights-movement for disabled people. In 1970, she founded the civil-rights group Disabled in Action. Even in the archival footage that shows her as a camp counselor, Heumann’s “take charge” demeanor is evident when she plans meals for the attendees. In a current interview for the documentary, she looks back on her time at Camp Jened as being important to her because she wanted to make an effort to “be inclusive” to everyone. She also remembers Camp Jened as “being more free and open than what I was experiencing in my day-to-day life at home.”

Heumann is the thread that ties the final two-thirds of the movie together, as the documentary then follows her tireless efforts to push civil rights for disabled people into federal laws, starting with the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, which would make it against federal law for federally funded groups and individuals to discriminate against disabled people. President Richard Nixon initially vetoed the act because he said it would be too expensive for places to revamp buildings to make them more accommodating to the disabled.

But Heumann organized protests that got media attention, including a group of wheelchair users who blocked Madison Avenue in New York City. She also led outreaches to the Vietnam veterans whose war injuries left them disabled. Because of these protests and political pressure, Nixon eventually signed the Rehabilitation Act into law in 1973.

However, this law only covered federally funded groups and individuals, not those operating on the state/local level or privately funded groups and individuals. The fight continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s for laws that would protect disabled people on all levels. Geraldo Rivera’s award-winning 1972 TV news exposé “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace,” which was about the horrific conditions of Willowbrook State School (an institution in New York for special-needs children) is mentioned in “Crip Camp” as being an important milestone in raising public awareness about civil rights for disabled people.

By the mid-1970s, Heumann and several other Camp Jened alumni (including O’Toole and the Jacobson spouses) had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, which (along with New York City) became another important hub for the U.S. civil-rights movement for disabled people. While in San Francisco, Heumann and a group activists did a nearly month-long sit-in-protest in 1977 because Joe Califano (who was then the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare) refused to sign off on specific reinforcements of section 504 of the Rehabilitation law. The sit-in protests occurred in San Francisco, as well as Califano’s office in Washington, D.C., and even outside of his home in the Washington area.

Dennis Billups is one of the disabled people who was involved in these protests. In an interview for “Crip Camp,” he and fellow protester O’Toole remember that their allies were a wide range of people who cared about civil-rights causes, including the Black Panthers, gay-rights groups, then-U.S. Representative George Miller and journalists such as HolLyn D’Lil and Evan White. (The latter two are interviewed in the documentary.)

O’Toole says that Black Panther member Brad Lomax told her in explaining why the Black Panthers helped with things such as donating food for the protesters: “You’re here to make the world a better place, and so are we.” The results of the 504 protests laid the groundwork several years later for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990.

LaBrecht was in high school and college during much of these protests (he wasn’t part of the 504 sit-ins), so his perspective mostly takes a back seat to the focus on Heumann that’s in the middle of the movie. However, in the last third of the documentary, he talks about how, after he graduated from the University of California at San Diego, he too moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and became part of an activist community involved in civil rights for disabled people. He also reached his goal of becoming a sound designer in the entertainment industry (there’s late 1970s archival footage of him on the job at Berkeley Repertory Theatre), even if he never did end up in his ultimate dream job: doing sound engineering for the Grateful Dead.

At the end of the film, there’s a mini-reunion of Crip Camp alumni from LeBrecht’s era, at the site where Camp Jened originally was.(The camp was bulldozed years ago. At the time the reunion was filmed for the documentary, the former camp site was under construction and there isn’t much to see.

Along with LeBrecht, other people at the reunion included Sherer Jacobson and former Camp Jened counselor Je’Woodyard. The documentary has a great juxtaposition of archival early 1970s footage of a young Je’Woodyard playfully pushing Sherer Jacobson in her wheelchair, shown with footage of what they looked like at the reunion decades later at the former camp site.

Heumann went on to become assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services during President Bill Clinton’s tenure. She was also a special advisor for international disability rights for President Barack Obama for most of his presidency. It’s probably why Barack and Michelle Obama are among the executive producers of “Crip Camp,” the second movie that the Obamas executive produced under their Netflix deal. (The first movie was the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary “American Factory.”)

Although the camp footage is certainly interesting and sometimes emotionally moving, directors Newnham and LeBrecht should have kept the film focused on the civil-rights part of the story. Because the camp footage takes up one-third of the film, it just makes “Crip Camp” look like it didn’t know if it wanted to be an autobiographical nostalgia piece from Lebrecht’s perspective or a more objective chronicle of the civil-rights movement with Heumann as the star. And this film is very nostalgic, since most of the soundtrack consists of 1960s and 1970s songs from artists such as the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young.

There’s a “split personality” to “Crip Camp,” but it doesn’t get too much in the way of the film’s important overall message: Even though there’s been progress in civil rights for disabled people, there’s a still a lot more progress that needs to be made in giving disabled people the same opportunities, access and respect that are automatically given to able-bodied people. (Think about how many employers don’t hire disabled people who are qualified for jobs because the employers don’t want disabled people to represent their companies.) Sherer Jacobson said it best in the documentary: “You can pass a law, but until you change society’s attitudes, the law won’t mean much.”

Netflix premiered “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” on March 25, 2020.