"Crip Camp: Igniting A Fire"
Question: If the Grateful Dead, the Obamas, and a busload of disabled teenagers were lines—where would they intersect?
Answer – Crip Camp.
On the recommendation of several friends, my wife and I watched ‘Crip Camp’, a Netflix documentary about a camp for disabled teenagers in upstate, New York, focusing on footage from the summer of 1971. Camp Janed, established in the 1950s as a summer camp for disabled teenagers, hired a new director for the summer of 1971. He, in turn, hired a bunch of hippies (and I use the term descriptively, not derogatorily) to act as camp counselors, regardless of the fact that they had zero experience working with people with disabilities. A bus from NYC arrives, the hippies get to work unloading teenagers
without the slightest idea of how to do it, and what ensues is a summer of chaos and beauty and joy and understanding. Most of the teens are timid at first, very self-conscious and reserved. But the hippie counselors draw them out of their shells. They loosen up, they talk and bond, they play soccer (sort of) and canoe and explore their sexuality. The summer catalyzes a paradigm shift in many of the campers and counselors alike.
The teens, used to being custodialized and under-valued, having no rights or opportunity for self-determinism, are transformed when the hippies let them do whatever they want. They sit and listen, patiently, as campers who have extreme difficulty communicating, are heard and understood. They experience freedom, and once tasted, there’s no going back.
The film focuses on a handful of campers and how they decided docility was no longer for them-- they had to take action. Slowly, a disability rights movement formed, and
grew, and accomplished real change.
Watching the film, and especially afterwards, I found my insides fermenting with emotion and thoughts. The kindness of the counselors as they interacted with the teens really touched me. The resolve and strength of the teens-turned-adult activists,
participating in demonstrations and sit-ins filled me with pride—for them, and for all of us.
My thoughts also went to the title of the film, Crip Camp. Back in 2006, I was the newest assistant editor at Breath and Shadow, and I was reviewing an essay. The writing was
excellent, but I wasn’t comfortable with the author’s liberal use of the word ‘crip’. Up to that point I had done a lot of advocacy work for the blind, but was just beginning to get
involved with other disability groups. So I contacted our editor then, Sharon Wachsler, who first laughed, then explained to me that much like the N word among Black Americans, ‘crip’ was cool between people who felt the word fit for them--but not others.
In contemplating what actually happened at that camp, I believe the biggest factor was the inexperience of the hippie counselors. None of what they did back then would be
remotely acceptable today. They did their best, but with no preconceived ideas about the abilities or limitations of the campers. They believed the kids could have fun, and they facilitated that fun, even if it meant dragging a smiling paraplegic around a soccer field or letting campers wander off behind the cabins to grope each other.
I, unfortunately, know far too many people with disabilities who are imprisoned by low expectations. Who buy into society’s view that they shouldn’t do this, or they can’t do that. I think about all the barriers, all the hurdles, and I understand. The key is belief, and perseverance, and the combination of a bunch of disabled teenagers who had enough, mixed with stoners who believed the world was ripe for change proved a life-changing combination.
I also think about the juxtaposition between a president who established Higher Ground Productions to help enlighten the world and hopefully make it a better place, versus a president who thinks it’s funny to publicly mock a disabled journalist.
Like the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement, we’ve taken three steps forward and two steps back. It’s disheartening at times. It’s devastating at times. But then I think of the resolve and determination of those wheelchairs blocking traffic in Manhattan, and taking over a government building in California, with no food, showers, personal attendants. Only their belief, and each other, and I find the desire in myself to
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnhan, Higher Ground Productions, distributed by Netflix, release date Jan. 23, 2020, running time 106 minutes.
Chris Kuell is the editor of Breath and Shadow. His short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in a number of literary, and some not-so-literary journals and magazines.