‘Crip Camp’ exceptionally recognizes past mistreatment of the handicapped, fight for reform


Credit: TrueFalse.org

Maddie Orr

Crip Camp tells a story of humanity, love and inspiration as handicapped Americans fight for human rights in the 1970s. The documentary was beautiful; depicting wholesome stories of teenage romance, human connection and the foundation of family outside of a world that deemed disabled people “outsiders.”

Because of its ability to engage through the entirety of the film, Crip Camp easily tops out as one of the best documentaries I have seen in its groundbreaking recognition of the civil rights movement of disabled Americans. 

Co-director Jim LeBrecht effectively utilized archival footage from his experience as a teenager at Camp Jened, a refuge for disabled men and women, as young adults navigated life secluded from the rest of the world. LeBrecht was diagnosed with spina bifida at a young age and doctors didn’t believe he would survive even hours after birth. Growing up, he never felt comfortable in his own skin until he met the others at Camp Jened.

His inclusion of black and white film and photography from that summer as well as a progressive addition of colored film beautifully portrayed a passage of time and the evolution of the image of handicapped persons. Many campers detailed their time at Jened as being a place where they could be themselves and stop trying to hide their disability. One former camper went on to say that Jened was like a “utopia.”

But, the film didn’t stop there. Crip Camp not only explored life at Camp Jened, but went on to tell the story of a fight against discrimination, prejudice, employment, education and transportation against disabled individuals in America. Judy Huemann, an American disability rights activist and former Camp Jened counselor, spoke on her movement in the 70s to sign Section 504 granting rights to handicapped people and deeming it illegal to discriminate against them.

LeBrecht’s storytelling was phenomenal. The documentary allowed viewers to be sucked into the world of handicapped individuals, easily attaching themselves to relatable teenagers. The filmmakers highlighted intimate conversations and usefully included individual interviews of campers both in the 70s and of current reactions and reflections. Humor was evident throughout the 102 minute film and swiftly lightened the mood during moments of hardship and true looks at the difficulties of the disabled.

The directors carried the audience through the 504 sit-in, marches on the streets of Washington D.C. and allowed them to witness the harrowing speeches Huemann made before the American government.

I struggled to understand why I hadn’t learned much about these significant American heroes as I indulged in the importance of Crip Camp. It’s depiction of the fight for disabled rights forced me to recognize that these stories should have been told a long time ago. 

The film was both heartbreaking and empowering; it moved me to tears, had me laughing till my stomach hurt and up out of my seat applauding. LeBrecht did a wonderful job documenting a history not very many people pay attention to, but a history so worth recognizing and celebrating today. Without the efforts of the handicapped people documented in the film, our modern society would miss the significant stories of disabled individuals and their efforts to obtain equality.

Crip Camp fantastically recognized the harrowing need for individualism and freedom. The overarching takeaway from LeBrecht’s film is to acknowledge that although handicapped people may look or act differently than others, they are not less of a person because of it. Every single human on this earth has purpose, needs, desires, emotions and a wonderful life to live. Crip Camp told these stories of people who aren’t always recognized in the media, who struggle with mobility disabilities, speech impediments and visual impairments, and addressed this prejudice directly. 

In Huemann’s words, “this country is finally waking up.”

What are your opinions on American portrayal of the handicapped? Let us know in the comments below.