Crip Camp. 2019. USA. Directed by Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht. Courtesy Netflix and Higher Ground Productions

Take a Trip Back to Crip Camp

We revisit the documentary’s New York premiere in the time of COVID and Black Lives Matter.
Josh Siegel Jul 23, 2020

On February 5, 2020, MoMA presented the New York premiere of Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s Crip Camp as the opening night of its annual Doc Fortnight festival. This co-production from Netflix and the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions is a stirring and sometimes raunchy portrait of Camp Jened, a camp for teens with disabilities that thrived near Woodstock, NY, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was an inspiring time for the many campers and counselors who would go on to revolutionize the disability rights movement and lead the fight for the eventual passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some of these people were in attendance at MoMA’s sold-out screening, including the film’s co-director Jim LeBrecht and the pioneering activist Judy Heumann. The passion, courage, and feistiness they showed as teenagers in the film—captured in remarkably intimate video footage—were equally apparent during the onstage conversation I moderated after the screening, and we are grateful to the Emmy Award-winning documentarian Nicole Newnham for also taking part. Crip Camp is streaming on Netflix now, and we hope you watch it; we think this onstage conversation is worth sharing and reflecting on as well.

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Crip Camp reminds us of the struggles that were fought and won, and the struggles yet to overcome. None of us who attended the MoMA screening had any premonition that our lives as individuals and as a community would be forever changed—in only a matter of weeks—by the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of Black Lives Matter as a powerful movement for justice and equality in the face of police brutality and systemic racism. Crucially, we must consider how these unfolding and uncertain events are affecting people with disabilities—particularly BIPOC—who are disproportionately at higher risk of experiencing life-threatening consequences from rampant infectious disease and police violence. A recent article in Nylon, “Where to Donate to Help Black People with Disabilities,” observes that “more than half of Black people with disabilities in the United States will be arrested by the time they reach their late 20s. It’s impossible to know just how many Black people who are shot by police or are victims of police violence also have disabilities due to a severe lack in federal record keeping, but estimates range from 20% to more than 40%.”

Judy Heumann and other civil rights champions—including Brad Lomax, the subject of a recent New York TimesOverlooked No More” obituary—have paved the way for younger activists like Keri Gray and Justine “Justice” Shorter who, as Sarah Kim reports in her op-ed for Teen Vogue, “under the umbrella of the National Alliance of Multicultural Disabled (NAMD) Advocates—a group that advocates for BIPOC representation in notoriously white-led disability organizations—[have] successfully instigated the #BlackDisabledLivesMatter efforts.” While the voices of Gray, Shorter, and many others ring loud, battles continue to be waged on behalf of disability rights in the courts. As Lisa Needham, a professor at Mitchell/Hamline School of Law, writes, the recent Supreme Court ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue “demonstrates a pathway for religious schools to discriminate against already-marginalized students, including LGBTQ youth and students with disabilities.” What has become more starkly clear with each passing day is that the revolution begun at Camp Jened is far from over.