A few weeks back, in my day job, I talked to our local high school’s athletic director about the installation of a new ramp at the school.
The ramp, which is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, didn’t strike me as particularly revolutionary, and I can’t imagine the AD thought so either. The act, which required accessibility for disabled people in all public buildings, was approved in 1990. For the last 30 years, we have lived in a world where those with disabilities receive the same accommodations and treatment as everyone else.
This is all well and good, but as we move further away from the passage of the act, it becomes easier to forget that things weren’t always this way. Some folks, like me, might assume that this was always the way things were.
So thank goodness for movies like Netflix’s “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” which provides a firsthand look at the treatment of Americans with disabilities during the 1970’s and 80’s and tells the story of a hard-won fight for civil rights for America’s disabled community. It alternates between horrifying and inspiring, but it is always enlightening.
The film, which is executive produced by President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, starts at the titular camp for disabled high schoolers, which was located in the Catskill Mountains for nearly a quarter century. “Crip Camp” co-director James LeBrecht, who suffers from spina bifida, attended Camp Jened in the early 1970’s. So did Judy Heumann, who has polio and became one of the key fighters for disabled people’s civil rights later in the decade.
The film is not vague about why these individuals and many other campers went on to live successful well-adjusted lives. It was because of the sense of community fostered at the camp and the counsellors who told students that the only barriers they faced were the ones in their minds.
“The problem did not exist with the people who had disabilities,” longtime camp director Larry Allison says. “The problem existed with the people who didn’t have disabilities. It was our problem so it was important for us to change.”
The archival footage from the camp is compelling, but things really get interesting in the second half as the focus shifts to Heumann and her fight to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was a sort of precursor to the ADA.
The United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare was dragging their feet on the implementation of the legislation. So Heumann and more than 150 other disabled people camped inside the HEW offices in San Francisco for no less than 25 days. It is the longest sit-in at a federal building to date.
The film, as you might suspect, has an utterly compelling story well told by the people who lived it. The archival footage is both beautifully restored and tear-inducingly touching at times.
There really are no missteps in “Crip Camp,” although I wish that the filmmakers had avoided an R rating (for some language including sexual references) so that it was more accessible for younger viewers.
This is a story that everyone, young and old, should know. It inspires and provokes thought. It makes you cry and want to be a better person. Most importantly, “Crip Camp” makes people with disabilities visible in a way they often aren’t.
In one of the film’s best scenes, a camper, whose speech is completely unintelligible due to her disability, is interviewed by a visitor to the camp. The interviewer patiently holds the microphone to her mouth until she has said every last unintelligible word. It does not matter that she was not understood. It matters that she was heard.
This is something that “Crip Camp” understands on a deep fundamental level. And by telling these campers’ stories – both the ugly and the good- it is doing its own small part to make our world a better place.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.