Day One: ‘Crip Camp’ Traces Disability-Rights Movement Origins to a ’70s Camp for Teens Where Radical Acceptance Was the Norm

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© 2020 Sundance Institute | Photo by Lauren Wester

On his last Day One as director of the Sundance Film Festival, John Cooper turned the attention of eager audience members from all over the world to the story of a small camp for kids in 1970s New York. From directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht (the latter a former camper himself), the documentary Crip Camp traces the story of the teens and counselors who attended the “run-by-hippies” Camp Jened, a utopia where disabled kids could finally be themselves.

It was in that place of radical acceptance that future disability-rights activists were formed. Experiencing an environment where every single person had a voice and they were seen for who they were rather than for their limitations opened up the possibility that the rest of the world could one day change. So they later formed up to launch local reforms—led by fireball former camp counselor Judy Huemann—and brought about the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act to guarantee protections to disabled individuals at the federal level.


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LeBrecht called this “a hidden story and a story that I didn’t want to be lost to history.” Looking around at the audience, he noted that he hadn’t hung out with this many people with disabilities since he was at Camp Jened. Newnham called it a “historic night” for a story like this to be “lifted up in this way” and bring so much visibility to people who are often shut out.

Former campers in attendance at the premiere agreed that the film has the power to effect positive change in the way the general public sees people with disabilities. “Society’s low expectations of us is our biggest handicap,” remarked Neil Jacobson, who met his wife at Camp Jened.

Though the film provided a powerfully uplifting message, Huemann urged audiences not to simply see it as a feel-good story but rather to take meaningful action after watching it. “I’m glad everyone is going to feel really good about what you’ve learned. But I think ultimately the question is what’s next, and what are you committing yourselves to do in order to ensure that we label discrimination against disabled people as discrimination and … that diversity of all people, including disabled people from all backgrounds, becomes a reality?”

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© 2020 Sundance Institute | Photo by Lauren Wester