Make sure I can get in the door

The summer is the time of the year many organizations that fund and support documentary filmmakers hold their workshops and retreats. This often happens in wonderful settings like the Berkshire Mountains or other rural locations.

Crip Camp is gaining support and attention that is truly remarkable. Chances are that Nicole Newnham Malarkey and I will be invited to gatherings like this.

My 61 years of anxiety about access for Mr. Wheelchair has just made my heart pound and the worry of disappointment that I still experience in trying to be a documentary filmmaker is on high alert right now.

S0, here’s a plea, request, head’s up for all of the wonderful people I’ve met over the years and will be meeting in the next few years:


It is a 2 way street. I want to make sure that I can get in the door and anyone that knows me and my body of work can tell you that I am a wonderful, talented teacher. How many sound mixers become filmmakers? How valuable will my experience be to my fellow filmmakers?

Why make this film, why tell this story?

Almost every day that I work on Crip Camp, I ask myself, “What’s so special about this story? Why would it mean something to someone? What are we trying to say?” This is how I approach big projects. I like to step back and ask these questions, because the answers should become clearer as the work progresses. Understanding the answers helps to tighten the focus on the story and the story telling.

I thought that the story of Camp Jened and the “exodus” of many of the people I knew there to Berkeley was incredible and needed to be told. I went to the camp for 4 years and it changed my life. That place gave me sanctuary for 2 months, each summer. And as I’ve learned over the last year when researching our film, Jened was a “heaven” for many more.

Imagine this summer camp in the Catskills, for the “handicapped”, run by hippies.  For once in my life, I felt the freedom to do what I wanted and be what I wanted to be. I was one of the cool kids, not the last one chosen (if at all) for the kickball team. I had a social life there!

As I was attending the University of California, San Diego from 1974-78, I heard that people from the camp had relocated to Berkeley. Our camp community had sprouted up in Berkeley. How did this happen? What did it mean? This was one of the more important times and events in our young lives, moving out of the NYC area and forging a life in the Bay Area.

Because of the efforts of people such as Ed Roberts, one of the first severely disabled students admitted into UC, Berkeley, services for the disabled started to emerge. The campus was becoming more accessible to disabled students and the City of Berkeley started to change as well.

With the establishment and growth of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, those of us looking to live on our own found a resource to find housing, get help to find attendants and get the financial support needed to sustain us.

CIL was run and founded by people with disabilities. It was quite the feat. In fact, I felt like this migration was an amazing story that needed to be told. I couldn’t stand the thought of it being lost to history.

We took a risk by leaving home – or so I thought. When I said this to a couple of the folks I knew from camp, they looked incredulous. “What do you mean a risk? It was the smart thing to do and the only alternative to a much harder life. Of course, we did this!” Yes, living in the northeast was hard if you had a mobility issue. Snow, old buildings, no curb cuts. And very few chances that you’d be able to live on your own. You could live with your parents until they got too old to take care of you. Or you could wind up in a nursing home – or worse, an institution. In comparison, moving to California, with its mild climate and evolving accessibly was an easy decision to make. Getting there, still, was a huge move for many of us.

I wanted to tell the story of the people that went and worked at that camp and how it changed them. How it fostered a community that lives on to this day. Once you experience a better life, you’ll do whatever you can to keep that life. This story started at Camp Jened. Crip Camp is the story of this community. This is the story that needs to be told.

The general population doesn’t get to see the disabled as young, smart, politically active and romantically involved. They see movies where the quadriplegic wants to commit suicide or they see news reports about someone with a disability achieving some kind of incredible goal, like climbing Half Dome. They don’t see us as we live each day, as their neighbor, co-worker or romantic crush. Society has a hard time seeing us as everyday people, the kind of person that doesn’t scare them because they’re afraid of saying or doing something wrong. You’re not going to consider hiring or dating someone from a population who you’ve only seen portrayed as pitiful, a burden or mad at the world.

I want this part of our history to be known. I want this to be an example of how we can unlock the possibility of gaining the best life there could be for everyone, not just those with disabilities.

Because what we experienced and what we made of our lives is a universal story. It’s about making the world a better place, by those who were thought at that time to be useless.

It’s about reaching as far as you can, sometimes making it and sometimes falling short of your dreams. It’s about finding love and community.

It’s Crip Camp.


PS- Gee Jim, what happened to part 2 of Preparing for Sundance? Life got crazy busy leading up to my trip to Sundance. Life has kept me pretty busy in the intervening 7 months. Finally, this weekend, I’ve had a chance to come back and update the website and share some thoughts.

There’s a lot more to tell. Stay tuned!

Preparing for Sundance 2017, Part 1

It’s exciting. It’s scary. I’m hopeful and I’m full of anxiety.

You would think that I was writing about submitting to the Sundance Film Festival, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. That’s not the case (this year).

I’m heading to Park City, Utah in about 7 days because I’ve mixed 2 films that are in the domestic Documentary competition. My humble company provided the audio post services on The Force and Unrest. And I’m going to network with as many people as I can as a first time filmmaker. I’ll be joined by Nicole Newnham, co-director and co-producer on Crip Camp, a few days after the festival begins. It’s our hope that we inform a number of funders and producers about our film and tell them why it’s going to be fantastic and needs to be seen, heard and felt by the whole world… Or, in calmer terms… We want to put a human face on our film to build awareness about it and hopefully, gain some support.

The excitement comes from joining some of the best people in filmmaking to watch films, talk in coffee shops and bars and from not knowing what good fun and fortune await me. I do have this cocktail party personality and hate to be late or leave too early when it comes to being in the thick of things.

The scary part is that I’ll be driving out from Oakland, California. I want to be able to use my own vehicle when I need to.

Flying is very difficult for me because I use a power chair. When I tell you that I find things difficult, it doesn’t mean that every person like myself finds it as difficult as I do. Some find it much easier to transfer into an aisle chair, get rolled to their seat and helped with the transfer. My body isn’t built to sit in an aisle chair. I’m a bit wide and I can’t sit up straight because doing so constricts my lungs and I can’t breathe. I would love to digress at this point and write a 5 page treatise about trying to travel by air as a wheelchair user. Let me leave it to this: You can’t ride in your own wheelchair. You can’t get into the bathroom. I have to pee into a bottle when I’m on cross-country flights. And a high percentage of wheelchairs get damaged by being loaded into and unloaded out of the plane.

I’ll be driving through the Donner Pass, through Nevada and into Utah over 2 days. At least I won’t be alone on the drive there and back. I have 2 new tires and I won’t ask what could go wrong. Speaking of tires, those 2 tires are on my van. I just got new tires on my wheelchair. The old ones were bald and I want as much tread as I can get. No, I don’t have chains on my chair, although I remember reading about a wheelchair using Park Ranger who had chains on his push chair.

I grew up with snow in the suburbs of New York City. I managed, but it wasn’t easy. And I was a lot younger then and used a push chair. When your push chair starts sliding on the ice, the chair itself doesn’t weigh too much. If you hit a snow bank, it’s not too hard to get up by yourself or with a little help (not that you want to do this all the time). However, my power chair weighs over 300 pounds and I’m about 200 pounds. I can only imagine sliding down main street right at Oliver Stone, screaming my head off. The last time I ditched out of my power chair, it took 3 people and a boy scout troop to get me back in the saddle.

In part 2, I’ll explain the hopefulness I have and the anxiety. Oh, that reminds me, better order some Ativan…

Jim LeBrecht

Jim at age 15 rolling towards camera

Disability and Filmmaking: a journal by Jim LeBrecht

Welcome to my blog about disability and filmmaking.

I’ve been working in film for over 25 years, primarily as a sound editor, designer and mixer. Over that time I’ve been involved with more than 300 films.

I’ve been disabled my whole life. I was born with Spina Bifida in 1956. I’ve never walked but I’ve always been very active and agile. Well, that used to be the case. I’ve had my fair share of “getting older” issues, just like everyone else has. Can’t crawl up a flight of stairs anymore and I have to use a power chair.

I’ve lived with the good and the bad of having a disability. I’ve had to negotiate a world that wasn’t very accommodating to someone that can’t walk. And I’ve had to try to be the best so that I could compete with those who didn’t have the disadvantage that I do. But that’s where the good comes in. I believe that adversity can make your life more meaningful. It can entreat you to excel farther than others because it makes you motivated. Not wanting to be the guy in the wheelchair that screwed things up can be a powerful motivator.

I’ve been an activist for the civil rights of people with disabilities since I was a teenager. Despite the strides our movement has made, including the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is so much more work to be done.

There are stereotypes that must be shattered. “Piss on pity” is one of our rallying cries. Moving away from thinking about having a disability as a tragedy towards thinking of us as the capable, proud, funny, imperfect people we are is crucial. These are attributes found in any set of people And that’s my point. My community is as varied and complex as yours. If we are never seen on screen, how do people even know that we exist as a community and a culture? If you only see us as helpless or supercrips, you’ll never think of us as approachable, employable, dateable or fuckable.

The power of filmmaking to open doors, eyes and minds is an unlimited resource. It’s time that we made our own films and tell our own stories. It’s more than time that performers with disabilities are able to access the jobs, workshops and networking events that allow them to work their way up the ladder. We need our stars, directors and producers. Only then will we be on your radar as other marginalized groups have become.

None of this is impossible. And it’s necessary.

Too often diversity or inclusion efforts have excluded the disabled community. And it’s not like we are being excluded intentionally. My wife told me that it would be an improvement if this was a conscience decision. More often than not, we are not part of this discussion because no one thought of us. This is a social justice issue. When we talk about intersectionality, the disabled community could become a poster child for intersectionality. We are all races, all ages, all genders and all religions.

The visibility of people like me can make it easier for others to follow in our tracks. If you don’t know that it’s possible to be an editor who has Cerebral Palsy, you’ll never consider hiring someone with CP or another disability for that position. And the kids out there with learning disabilities or mobility issues, who want to be artists and performers, need to know that it’s possible for them to realize their dreams, because others have broken through the barriers that have held us back.

I will write about what is possible, how it’s done and give you an inside look at my journey as a first time co-director and co-producer on the documentary film Crip Camp. I’ll shine a light on other people with disabilities that are working in film.

If you’ve made it to this page, please take a look around the rest of the website and learn a bit about the story of Crip Camp, me and Nicole Newnham my co-director and co-producer.

Jim LeBrecht