Just down the road from Woodstock, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a parallel revolution blossomed in a ramshackle summer camp for disabled teenagers. Steeped in humor and the music of the era, Crip Camp explores summer camp awakenings that would transform lives and shape the future of the disability rights movement. Told from the point of view of former camper Jim LeBrecht, the film traces the journeys of campers up to the present day, in this compelling and untold story of a powerful movement towards inclusion.
At the time, disabled teenagers faced a future shaped by isolation, discrimination and institutionalization. But Camp Jened, a revolutionary summer camp ‘for the handicapped’, exploded those confines. Camp director Larry Allison held a vision of a community free of condescension – where campers were defined by their individuality, not their disability. In this environment, teenagers were able to experience the fullness of themselves as human beings, in the freewheeling and open culture of the moment.
The community formed at Camp Jened pushed boundaries, transformed lives, and seeded a unique group of young adults who went forward inspired to live independent lives. Many became deeply involved in the nascent disability rights and independent living movements. The film follows several campers to the “promised land” of Berkeley, where they were part of a series of watershed protests from 1973-1977, pushing the government to sign meaningful regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act – the first federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities. Their 25-day occupation of the San Francisco Health, Education and Welfare offices is, to date, the longest sit in of a government office in U.S. history.
We believe that this story is an important one to tell and that we are the right team to tell it. First of all, it’s Jim’s story. Jim spent 4 summers at Jened and credits this experience as one of the most foundational of his life. As Jim tells it, “Jened introduced me to a world I never knew and eventually led me to the disability rights movement. I became a member of Disabled In Action, one of the earliest organizations working towards a better life for all people with disabilities. When I entered college, I founded the Disabled Student’s Union.” Jim went on to become a successful sound designer for theater and film, working on many of the seminal documentary films that have been made in the last two decades.
“Now I’m ready to make a documentary. I believe that filmmakers with disabilities should tell our own stories, exposing audiences to our history through the eyes of the people who lived it”, says LeBrecht. A longtime collaborator, co-director and co-producer Nicole Newnham is the perfect partner on this project – much of her past work illuminates deeper themes in history through intimate human stories.”
Crip Camp is a new way to look at disability and we intend to create something that is unlike any documentary about disability that has preceded it — with humor, sex, drugs, rock and roll and from the universal, tender perspective of adolescence. Our scaffolding for the film is a treasure-trove of never-before-seen footage we’ve recently discovered. The black and white video, shot at the camp by pioneering video activists in 1971, contains surprising, moving, and funny scenes and shows Jim and other campers whose stories we will feature in the film. We will also incorporate 8mm color film, beautiful black and white photos taken across several years by talented Jened counselors, archive of the times, personal interviews, footage of campers in their lives today, and hybrid footage to recreate the campers-eye-view of the era.
Crip Camp will feature lives that bent towards success, like Judy Heumann, an international disability rights leader and Neil and Denise Jacobson. Neil, a former Vice President at Wells Fargo and Denise, a writer, adopted a child. They were one of the nation’s first significantly disabled couples to do so.
We also follow lives that ended in tragedy, witnessing the community reckon with the fact that some of those who sought independence followed a dream before it’s time— including a camper who died neglected by her caregivers.
Interwoven through those stories will be the counselors whose lives were also transformed by Jened- like Lionel Woodyard, one of a group of young African Americans from the deep south. Until Camp Jened, Lionel had never had a positive experience with a white person. At Jened he, too, experienced a life that had previously been unimaginable.
Crip Camp is not inspiration porn (when people with disabilities are viewed as inspirational solely on the basis of their disability). This is a film that aims to take viewers deep inside a revolutionary era and on a wild trip: a ride from oppression to empowerment, from infantilization to freedom, a ride of sexual awakening – the trip of a lifetime.