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!