In a crippled moment, the disabled lead.
The term “crip camp” is the nickname for a summer camp for the disabled. Back in 1973, one such camp seeded a revolution that is relevant today.
In January of this year, the Sundance Film Festival opened with a documentary titled “Crip Camp.” It begins with that seminal summer at Camp Jened in the Catskills of New York and traces the history of the way a number of heroic individuals there catalyzed a campaign for disability rights that would change our world.
And that change may continue. Netflix launched “Crip Camp” on March 25, and a rising tide of excited media attention is underway. The documentary, which was developed over five years, is extraordinary. However, its reception is due in part to propitious timing. Who could have known that it would premiere in a moment when America would need this story?
THE ROLE OF MY BLOG
Unbeknownst to me, I began preparing long-term subscribers for this post back in August 2016. At that time, I wrote about a book published by my high school classmate, HolLynn Bryson D’Lil. Five months after graduating from Texas A&M with honors, she became paraplegic due to a car accident. Becoming Real in 24 Days tells the story of her engagement in the 1977 demonstrations that proved a turning point in the national battle for disability rights.
Just recently HolLynn’s story blossomed anew. She is interviewed in the Crip Camp documentary and was honored among others at the Sundance Film Festival. Soon she alerted her former classmates about its impending availability on Netflix. This was a welcome bright spot in a firmament darkened by the invasion of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
I didn’t get around to watching the film until several days after it opened. I was very busy, but to be honest, I was not eager to watch something I thought might be depressing in such a stressful time. I finally tuned in late one night and thought I would pause halfway through and finish the next day. No such thing. I have now watched it twice and was riveted from the first moment. How could that be?
If you take a look at the first few minutes of Crip Camp, you’ll probably understand. This includes footage of director and producer Jim LeBrecht as a toddler happily making his way up and down stairs in spite of tiny, trailing legs resulting from spina bifida. His spirit visible in this introductory moment manifests in other personalities throughout the film, reassuring and then captivating the viewer.
Jim LeBrecht, was one of the extraordinary individuals at Camp Jened back in 1973 when an amazing synergy manifested. A major goal of the disabled there was to secure the opportunity to explore their professional potential. Jim became a film and theater sound designer and mixer who worked on many documentaries, including Crip Camp, with a woman named Nichole Newnham.
Also at Jened was Judy Heumann. Disabled by polio, she was a counselor at the camp in 1973. However, due to eloquence, courage, and a quiet but commanding dignity, she soon became the foremost leader of the national disability rights movement.
Back when he was attending the camp at age 15, Jim could not have had any idea that he would create a documentary on that experience, but he did actually produce some early footage. One day visiting videographers loaned him a camera, and he filmed as they pushed his wheelchair around the grounds. The imagery is of a rocky ride, as life would be for all the campers. The work of videographers Ben Levine and Howard Gutstadt in capturing summer activities was expert and fascinating.
Most of the attendees could barely walk if at all, and many suffered from impaired speech. However, they were unexpectedly appealing onscreen in their liveliness, humor, and intelligence. Nevertheless, they knew themselves to be a problem. One young camper actually said, “The world wants us dead.”
So, OK, Ellen. Crip Camp is a fine documentary about the historic revolution of the disabled. But you said that they are leading in the moment. What did you mean?
As I mentioned at the beginning, the timing of the film’s release is extremely important. It has arrived center stage at a juncture when, due to the COVID-19 crisis, the American collective is in a more sensitive state of mind than we have ever been before. If you watch it, your personal response to the film may reflect that.
Consider how confined we are by this pandemic and how dis-empowered by government regulations. We sense that others are repelled by our presence, imagining potential contagion. We can’t move around readily or engage in sports. Access is barred to places we would like to go. Opportunities to socialize are rare. Our individual potential does not seem to matter to a shuttered world. We are already beginning to feel diminished by reduced income. There seems no way to thrive in the moment.
Do you see where I’m going? No matter how healthy, strong, and physically flawless we are individually, we have as a group been disabled and isolated by this disease crisis in much the same way that the handicapped always have been in society. Our hopes and aspirations matter no more to the coronavirus than those of the disabled have mattered to a culture sometimes “put off” by their looks and challenges.
A HOPE FOR THE BEST
All we have wanted from the beginning of this crisis is to put it behind us and get back to normal. But a question may arise as we sit alone thinking. Is “normal” good enough? Could we do better than this for everyone’s sake? Like the heroic young people of Crip Camp, we may begin to imagine many ways in which things could change for the better.
I guess this will be up to those of us who survive. How do you feel? Good. This blog is supposed to serve as an immunofortificant.