Crip Camp: It is Necessary and Important

Image Description: Poster for the Netflix Documentary Crip Camp. The Title is in white in the upper left corner. In the background are  white buildings in the foreground a shirtless black man leans a guitar over his right shoulder while pushing a white young man wearing trousers and a white shirt in his wheelchair
Image Description: Poster for the Netflix Documentary Crip Camp. The Title is in white in the upper left corner. In the background are white buildings in the foreground a shirtless black man leans a guitar over his right shoulder while pushing a white young man wearing trousers and a white shirt in his wheelchair

Near the beginning of the film Crip Camp which premiered today on Netflix, a girl named Valerie sees that she is being filmed and asks “Is this necessary? Is this important?” The answer is of course, yes this was very important.

I am so grateful for this film. It is absolutely unrepentant for disabled people.

The film covers the birth of the American disability rights movement which is traced back to Camp Jened, a camp for disabled people run as the film puts it by “hippies” from the 1950s to the 1970s. The film then shows how ideas and relationships created at Camp Jened resulted in civil disobedience like the 504 sit in which paved the way for more accessibility and laid the groundwork for the ADA.

Fighting for the AdA of course took significant activism and throughout all the time that disabled people in the United States were fighting for legal improvements to better their quality of life, you will find people who met at Camp Jened and who stayed connected and who organized for change.

Throughout the film many of the voices we hear discuss how they grew into their disabled identities and learned to reject the discriminatory attitudes that they faced and also reject the internalized ableism that they had learned growing up being the only disabled people in their communities.

Image description: a poster with a black background. It has the words challenged, handicapped, handi-capable, differently abled, divers-abled, special needs in white followed by red X’s beneath in a larger font is the word Disabled followed by a red check mark.
This poster is designed by Amythest Schaber and can be ordered here

It is through finding community that these people who improved the lives of so many others were able to do so.

This is very much a film about disability and disabled people. If the title Crip Camp wasn’t enough of a hint.

It was so powerful to watch. I finished it feeling sad that I never had the opportunity to go to Camp Jened and be part of the amazing burgeoning of the disability rights movement. Unfortunately, not everyone got the point of Crip Camp.

It is always a precarious situation when nondisabled people begin sharing their understandings of disability stories. In a film where several people clearly rejected the idea of overcoming disability as toxic and damaging, reviewer, Peter Debruge concluded this as the takeaway from the film.

In the end, “Crip Camp” isn’t about disability so much as the incredible ability this community showed, overcoming physical barriers and personal discomfort in order to be taken seriously. But that doesn’t mean the movie has to be 100% serious, and LeBrecht and company recognize that a little irreverence makes the journey that much more universal.

I cannot stress enough thhat while there is a lot of joy and triumph in the film, they did not however overcome physical barriers. They demanded that those physical barriers be removed. It’s like Debruge doesn’t even know what the 504 sit in accomplished. Did he even watch the movie?

I must be acknowledged that Debruge has a history of writing badly about disability. In his review of the controversial Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, he initially included this passage,

Text Reads: In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to confess: I’m a sucker for quadriplegic movies. Didn’t put it together until “Don’t Worry” really started to jive (which happens right about the moment Van Sant reveals the cause of Callahan’s injury), but there’s something about seeing real people contend with such extreme disability that gets me nearly every time. Whether they’ve been crippled since birth (a la “The Sessions”) or later in life (“The Sea Inside,” “The Theory of Everything”), their stories have a way of reminding us what really matters. Add to that the circle of support severely handicapped individuals require, and I’m in rapture, for there is nothing more beautiful in all of cinema — nothing — than genuine caregiving.

This section was swiftly criticized and summarily removed without acknowledgement that changes had been made. The review didn’t exactly improve much with the omission. It arill includes passages like this,

their stories have a way of reminding able-bodied people what they take for granted, while serving to bridge the perception of difference and discomfort that no doubt contributes to an under-representation of handicapped characters in general. In Callahan’s case, his alcoholism indirectly caused his injury, and the circle of sincere human support that gathers around him — both for overcoming his addiction and adapting to his condition — is so beautiful as to justify the controversy of its casting.

So it is certain that at the very least Peter Debruge as learned nothing. It is important to watch how important films like Crip Camp are received my nondisabled audiences. The oppressor has an infinite capacity to simply ignore the story as it is intended to be told.

John Callahan (the man profiled in Don’t Worry) never set out to inspire nondisabled people. He was more the kind of guy to tell them to Fuck, Off.

Crip Camp is a documentary about the amazing and grueling work disabled people have had to put in to be seen as human beings just as they are. Not the pseudo-humanity that is inferred by narratives of overcoming.

Crip Camp is an absolute much watch. I would also ask you to seek out opinions and reviews written by disabled people. These will help you broaden your understanding of the film and the barriers we continue to face.

Oh, did I mention, one summer at Camp Jened, there was an outbreak of crabs so the disability rights movement was born out of a bunch of horny teenagers. Which is clearly amazing.

Go watch the movie people.

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