This one time at Camp Jened…

Crip Camp (2020 | USA | 108 minutes | James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham)

If “The West Wing” was an alternate version of the Clinton presidency, the documentaries President and Mrs. Obama produced for Netflix (the Oscar-winning American Factory and now Crip Camp) feel like his reconciliation of the failures of his presidency. American Factory explored the cruelties of late capitalism and the economic inequality that thrived during his presidency. Crip Camp, in part, shows the inadequacy of neoliberal policy making which has come to define Democratic administrations throughout my lifetime.

Crip Camp’s first act is about Camp Jened during the 1970’s. Not far from Woodstock in upstate New York, Camp Jened was a summer camp for people with disabilities. It was open from 1951 to 1977. A lot of those people also had their sexual awakenings there. It’s actually kind of endearing how horny some of the campers were. One person said a camp counselor gave him lessons on kissing that he said were the best physical therapy sessions he’s had. Another woman, Denise Jacobson, who has cerebral palsy, is interviewed midway through and said she was actually kind of proud of herself for contracting gonorrhea, briefly, until a doctor told her she was not the type of person to be sexually actually. It should go without saying but that doctor is an asshole.

The parts of the movie that dealt with Camp Jened was my favorite because you get to know the campers on a personal level and were able to see them in a state of happiness, for the most part, though archival footage.

The “star” of Crip Camp is almost certainly Judy Heumann, a life-long activist who also served in the Clinton and Obama administrations and has been one of the most prominent activists for disability rights, and one of the most successful. Her presence is seen throughout, from her time at Camp Jened to working in the halls of power. 

The second part of the movie deals with how Camp Jenet led directly to the disability rights movie. There’s a really great scene about midway through Crip Camp where disability rights activists are confronting President Carter’s Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano about his hesitation to enforce section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, one of the first pieces of legislation in US history to actually offer civil rights protections with people with disabilities. Califano was pleading with activists that he hadn’t had much time in office and wanted to get implementation right. There may be some wisdom in that, but the activists clearly saw what he was doing: trying to water down the legislation to make it acceptable to lobbying interests that didn’t want to make the investment in accessibility. They were not going to put up with it (nor should they). Califano really did drag implementation and went so far as to say he wouldn’t recognize the protests because they were illegal and he even dispatched a lackey to San Francisco to pay lip service to the activists but he had to try to hide in a locked room when they weren’t willing to accept his buck-passing bullshit. The solution proposed would be basically “separate but equal” for disabled people.

It should also be noted that the protests were not undertaken by only activists because Black Panthers and labor unions provided support, as well. Eventually, Califano relented and the activists won. It subsequently led to other legislative victories like the Americans with Disabilities Act. But I think that also showed the obscene way legislation is crafted and implemented when Democrats control the White House: the most radical possible plan that is palatable to the donor class. It’s how the Affordable Care Act left so many uninsured.

But that doesn’t mean one should lose sight of what Crip Camp is, which is a very good documentary about the origins of the disability rights movement. It’s downright heroic, and this movie doesn’t hide the very real consequences of the division of (neo)liberalism whose mantra is “let’s not let the perfect become the enemy of ‘good enough.’” Crip Camp is a celebration of the people who made the world a better – and more accessible – place.