"Crip Camp"

A rehearsal for revolution

Ellen Rolfes Jun 3, 2024
Heard on:

This month, we’re watching the 2020 Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” which tells the story of a summer camp for teens that inspired a disability rights movement.

Camp Jened, which operated from 1953 until 1977, wasn’t much more than a few rundown cabins in the Catskill Mountains of New York, but for its campers, it was a haven from judgment. The teens and staff alike offered each other patience, respect and accommodation needed to make collective decisions, a kind of autonomy and agency they didn’t usually have when they weren’t at camp.

“At Camp Jened, we were able to envision a world that didn’t have to be set up in a way that excluded us,” Judith Heumann said, a former camper turned disability rights advocate.

Though the term “cripple” isn’t widely used these days, “Crip Camp” filmmaker and former camper Jim LeBrecht said the title shows  “this isn’t your average film about disability.”

“Crip Camp” relies on archival footage from an experimental collective called the People’s Video Theater, which spent time at Jened in 1971. The subjects collaborated in the filmmaking, strapping cameras to their wheelchairs. The camera operators would also play back the footage for the campers over that summer so that the teens could see themselves talk about their identities, their love lives and their complicated feelings about their loving but overprotective parents. 

Many of those same campers and staff went on to advocate for the rights of disabled people, and to help change cultural perceptions of them.

Disability rights activism in the U.S. goes back to the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that lawmakers and the courts began recognizing and codifying those rights.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling abolished the “separate, but equal” doctrine and banned racial segregation in public schools, but it took another 20-plus years for legislators to affirm these same rights for children with disabilities, who were regularly sent to separate institutions instead of public school. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin, but not disability.

Throughout “Crip Camp,” we see politicians justify their delayed action with  concerns about efficiency and utility. Making the world more accommodating to people with physical disabilities would cost a lot of money, they said, and only benefit a small portion of the population. (More than 42 million Americans have disabilities, according to 2021 Census Bureau data, approximately 13% of the population.)

Congress finally passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The law banned discrimination based on physical or mental disabilities, and affirmed the right to equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

We hope you’ll watch “Crip Camp” with us as we explore these issues all month long.

If you have any questions or comments about the film, don’t be shy! Just reply to this email or write us at  extracredit@marketplace.org

How to watch “Crip Camp”

“Crip Camp” is available to stream on Netflix with a subscription and on YouTube for free.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.