Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

Newnham , NicoleLeBrecht, James

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol
  • Date of entry: Jun-18-2021
  • Last revised: Jun-21-2021


Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is an exuberant film by and about people who have been marginalized on screen and in their lives. It opens with black and white archival footage of Camp Jened, a quirky, free-spirited, counter-culture summer camp for disabled teenagers in New York’s Catskilll Mountains. One camper called it a utopia. The second and longer part of the film follows several former campers into their adult lives. They become parents, spouses, professionals, and disability rights activists at a crucial historic moment for disability legislation. Both parts of the film propose that the liberty and solidarity experienced at Jened emboldened several of the campers to seek opportunity and equality, for themselves and others, in the world beyond their camp.

Located near Woodstock, geographically and culturally, Jened offered a space free from the discrimination the summer residents encountered elsewhere. Campers could engage in uninhibited physical activities, uncensored storytelling, self-governance, mutual caretaking, real friendships, irreverent insider humor, romance, and fun. One powerful scene allows viewers to overhear campers with diverse disabilities share common experiences: being disrespected or ignored at school, overly protected at home, isolated everywhere. Another tracks the campers’ hilarity and pride over an outbreak of “crabs.” One camper declares his counselor’s demonstration of how to kiss, “Best physical therapy ever!” 

While the film’s co-director, former camper Jim Lebrecht, narrates the film, Judy Huemann is its political and moral center. A wheelchair user, she rose from camper to counselor. Huemann was revered around camp for successfully suing the New York City Department of Education for the right to teach. She and several post-campers reunited in Berkeley, California, where they became involved in the Independent Living Movement. An astute leader, Heumann is represented as central to a remarkable 25-day sit-in at the San Francisco Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) offices in 1977. She and her disabled colleagues risked their health and their lives—they slept on the floor and improvised medical necessities—to convince HEW to approve regulations essential for enforcing the anti-discrimination section of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. The scene of Heumann’s standoff with the HEW representative is unforgettable. As are the deliveries of food, supplies, and solidarity that the Black Panthers and other marginalized groups in San Francisco provided daily. Other archival footage, including of Heumann and demonstrators stopping traffic in New York City to demand accessible taxis and of protestors abandoning their wheelchairs to pull themselves up the steps of the nation’s Capitol, are startling images of the struggle to secure disability civil rights in the United States. Recently filmed interviews with several of the former campers affirm that, despite the work toward disability justice that remains, they live fuller, more vibrant lives as a result of their experiences at Jened and the legislation they insisted on.


Crip Camp is an indispensable film. It’s in part a multi-voiced memoir told from the too-rare perspective of teenagers with disabilities about a shared formative experience. The Jened campers’ irrepressible personalities, candid perspectives, and accomplishments demolish stereotypical ideas about disability. It’s a joy to watch human beings having a spontaneous good time in each other’s company. It’s also painful to realize how inhospitable the world they had to navigate was and is.

Crip Camp is simultaneously a needed documentary about disability civil rights campaigns, which have received far less attention than the Black and Women’s rights movements and anti-war protests of the same era. The scenes from the San Francisco sit-in are compelling. It was the longest and most successful of synchronous rallies in other cities, a story beyond the film’s scope. All were aimed at turning the hollow anti-discrimination language of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act into enforceable mandates that could change lives. As Crip Camp raises awareness of the “nothing about us without us” campaigns for disability rights, it also makes viewers restless for future documentaries revealing the fuller history and politics of the passage and enforcement of laws through the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.


Co-directed, written, and produced by long-time collaborators Nicole Newhan and James Lebrecht, Crip Camp has earned a deservedly long list of nominations and first-prize awards for Best Documentary Feature. Among the most prominent are Winner of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and Nominee for the Grand Jury Prize. It was also nominated for an Oscar. Judith Heumann was the Winner of the 2020 Critics’ Choice Documentary Award for Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary. The film was executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions.




Higher Ground Productions

Running Time (in minutes)

108 minutes