So now that I’m officially part of the first cohort for the CT Aspiring Leadership Academy for Special Education, our first assignment is to watch Crip Camp. I’ve never heard of the movie. I don’t know anything about it. But, the special education leaders of our group tell us that it’s really good and can be a bit of a tear-jerking at times and inspiring as all heck.
I soon discovered that Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is a documentary film made in 2020. I also hear that Barack and Michelle Obama have something to do with it. And it received an Academy Award nomination, too.
So, I turned on my television set and went to my Netflix account, looking for Crip Camp. I was so inspired by this movie. These people in the film who have way less than me have accomplished so much more than me. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. So, let me back up and start at the beginning of this film.
The first thing I notice in the documentary movie is that handicapped people are depicted as real people. The first person we meet is Jim LeBrecht. He was born with spina bifida and was told he wouldn’t live long. When he made it to first grade, his dad said that he had to be very outgoing so the other kids would like him at school. Jim soon learned that barriers were everywhere, and none of the other kids wanted him to be around.
Eventually, Jim found Camp Jened in the Catskills in New York in 1971. Later in life, he will get a real job at the repertory theater. And his disability doesn’t affect his job performance or job duties. Most importantly, having that job allows him to live a normal life.
Next, we get to see what Camp Jened was all about. It seems to be filled with hippies and people playing music. It looks like a pretty wild place filled with people who had all sorts of handicaps doing all sorts of things. There are also many green counselors who didn’t know what the heck to do, like Joe O’Conner.
My first impression of the camp director, Larry Allison, was appalling. He had a post-hole digger, and he was digging holes around the field everyone was hanging out. When he was asked what he was doing by the documentary film crew, he said he was digging holes to mess with the handicapped campers so they would step in the holes and fall down.
I couldn’t believe he was doing this. Then I thought about it some more and realized that something very different was happening at this camp. Larry Allison treated the handicapped campers like they weren’t handicapped at all. He treated them like they were capable of being part of a practical joke. He knew something that most of us didn’t understand, especially at that time in our history. These kids aren’t really that fragile. They aren’t going to break if we treat them like we treat other kids. Remember, this was in 1971. It was still before the Disabilities Act had been passed.
In Camp Jened, every camper had something going on with their body. So, it just wasn’t a big deal. There, teenagers could be teenagers. It was like a social experiment to see if these kids could be treated just like every other kid out there in the bigger world. They soon realized that it was not themselves, the disabled kids that had the problem. It was the people who didn’t have disabilities who had the problem. The non-disabled views of the handicapped were warped and not reality.
Back at home, kids would always ask these disabled kids if they were sick. Nobody did that to them at Camp Jened. Back at home, these disabled kids were home-schooled, put in institutions, or in the far-off corner of the basements of their schools. These handicapped kids knew they were being sidelined and isolated, but there was nothing they could do about it back at home. Camp Jened was the exact opposite. They weren’t sidelined. At home, they never got picked to be on a team. In Camp Jened, everyone got up to bat. Everyone participated. They were treated like everyone else. They smoked cigarettes, listened to music, and were surrounded by coolness and even some making-out. Many found their first boyfriend or girlfriend there and even got naked.
Back at home, there was an obvious hierarchy and another hierarchy that wasn’t so obvious among the disabled. A kid with polio was on top because he looked the most normal. Cerebral Palsy kids were on the bottom because they looked the most different. Sad, isn’t it?
They found that something as simple as getting ice cream was a challenge because it made the mainstream people feel uncomfortable. Handicaps were discriminated against in many of the same ways this country has discriminated against people of color. People eating ice cream didn’t want handicapped people around. The sight of them would cause mainstreamers to be disgusted and lose their appetite.
In addition, the campers complained that their parents were always overprotective. Their parents wouldn’t let them do anything because their parents wrongfully believed that they were going to break if they did anything. Another unintended consequence of this false fear is that these campers’ parents never gave them any privacy.
These handicapped children learned at Camp Jened that their lives at home could be better. When the camp ended, they went back home to try to fit in with their newfound confidence, and all they found was a world that wasn’t built for them. They couldn’t even use public transportation to get around because public transit wasn’t made for them.
Hence, Judy Heuman, the Disabled in Action (DIA) president, enters the documentary. Judy’s organization is a political organization of the handicapped people. She is convinced that handicapped people have no power without political power.
The institution of Willowbrook was a disgrace and, quite frankly, a horror show. In the movie, they only had 1 staff for every 50 patients. The handicapped were put there to be out of the sight of mainstream society. There, they were treated as asexual. They weren’t seen as a man or a woman, just a misfit. And they were just left to sit in their own filth for hours because of the natural biases and the lack of staff.
The need to change the status quo of the exclusion moment started with a lawsuit against New York City public schools. Judy Heuman wanted deinstitutionalization. And the Civil Rights Movement was an opportunity for disabled people to push for equality. Also, the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, Section 504, was the anti-discrimination provision that they needed. It said that anyone who got federal money couldn’t discriminate. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions receiving federal money couldn’t discriminate against anyone. And that also meant that they couldn’t discriminate against the handicapped. But, sadly, Nixon vetoed it. He said ramps and elevators cost too much money.
So, people with disabilities fought back. They held a disability sit-in in their wheelchairs to protest. They sat in their wheelchairs right in the middle of the street in New York City. They literally shut down Manhattan. No one knew disabled people had so much power. Before this, no one realized the kind of political power the disabled could have simply through intelligent, disruptive protests. The police did not want to be on television manhandling people with disabilities.
In 1973, the disabled veterans returning from the Vietnam War furthered the voice and political power of the Camp Jened’s campers who were coming of age. Together they had a more influential cause and a louder voice. The two groups organized and became politically active. Eventually, President Nixon gave in and signed the Bill. But the loophole that continued to hurt the disabled was that no one enforced Section 504.
By 1974 life is getting exciting. A bunch of the Camp Jened campers moved to Berkeley. There, they lived free and wild, just like everyone else who had moved to the Berkeley area during that time. They were hitting up Grateful Dead concerts and were exerting their own independence. And they were loving this evolution, or maybe revolution.
The Center for Independent Living (CIL) came about during this time in Berkeley. The CIL was the first time a group of disabled people got together to help other disabled people. Ed Roberts was the executive director. And his goal was to make handicapped people self-sufficient. The CIL provided transportation, and it provided a place to live. It gave disabled people jobs and helped them apply for financial aid. They gave their clients motorized wheelchairs, and most important of all, it gave them self-respect. And that was something to party together over.
In 1977 the schools and hospitals were pushing back against the costs of accommodating the handicapped. President Carter wasn’t doing anything to enforce the 504 Provision of the Law. The handicap population was pressuring Carter and his deputy, Califano, to sign 504 and make it enforceable. When nothing happened, the handicapped took matters into their own hands again and did another sit-in. It was at the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Headquarters this time. This handicapped population stayed there for 24 days. And even the Black Panthers showed up with food for the group to help them continue their protest. The protesters slept on the floor and took care of each other during this time. This was the longest protest ever organized by handicapped people. And they received help from Civil Rights Organizations and various unions.
Sadly, Evan White was the only media personality that covered the 504 Sit-In at the HEW Headquarters during this time. Most people just weren’t interested. They just wanted those people to be put somewhere out of sight.
In 1977, the authorities threw around the idea that handicaps were separate but equal. Many, including Judy Heuman, brought up the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that shot down the concept of separate but equal. Many of the handicapped felt that the authorities and general population didn’t just want separation but would probably be happy if they were all just dead.
Judy went to Washington D.C. to go talk to President Jimmy Carter. Since public transportation wasn’t built for them, the machinist union drove her and her friends around D.C. They went to see Jimmy Carter at his church. And they went to visit his deputy, Califano, at his house. Califano snuck out the back door of his house, and President Carter snuck out the side door of his church, so neither one had to talk to Judy and the rest of the disabled protesters.
After much pressure, Joe Califano broke down and finally signed the regulations. The physical world around the handicapped started to become more accessible thanks to the disabled civil rights movement in Berkeley and Washington D.C. Now Jim LeBrecht, who the movie began with, got a new ramp at the repertory theater in Berkeley. And Judy felt so grateful to finally have accessible bathrooms that took her one step closer to equality.
Sadly, President Reagan came into office and tried to repeal the 504 Law. The disabled population had to fight back again and organize another protest. Private businesses ignored the 504 Law. But people like Jude wouldn’t let public organizations take federal money and forget about the 504 Law. There is no way the largest minority group in the U.S. should be denied equal opportunity.
President Bush finally signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, this law didn’t entirely change society’s views or attitudes toward the handicapped. A law helps. But laws alone can’t fix it.
The movie’s end has a few of the all-grown-up Camp Jened campers revisiting the camp site in New York’s Catskills. The camp ran into financial problems and since had been bulldozed. There is just an open field there now. As the older campers traversed the old campgrounds, they looked around and said something like, “Can you believe everything we have done all started here?”
I was so moved and inspired. And when one of the ladies said, “We should kiss the fuc**** dirt here!” I began laughing through my teary eyes and said to myself, “She’s right! We all should kiss the fuc**** magical dirt there.”
There was obviously something very special about the dirt there and the little holes that the camp’s director Larry Allison dug into the dirt there to trip the campers all those years ago in 1971. Somehow, the impossible came out of that camp and the land there. We should all be inspired to make the world a better and more inclusive place for all of us…