Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Netflix, 2020).

Review by Dan Goodley, Ruby Goodley and Rebecca Lawthom

Lockdown TV. Bingeing Box sets. These have become elements of our everyday lives. Tiger King. The Last Dance. Normal People. Entertainment or survival by televisual feasting? You decide. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is the latest high profile offering from Netflix.

This is an exceptional contribution. It’s not often that disability activism and disabled people are the subjects of a mainstream media hit. Too often disability appears as a narrative prop; an object, character or plot-line on which to hang tired old stereotypes of fear, tragedy and sympathy (Mitchell and Snyder, 2006). Crip Camp does something new and provocative: it centralises disabled people as the lead narrators and lead actors in what is a rather marvellous, entertaining and moving documentary of community, coming-of-age, politics and identity. The story centres around Camp Jened – a Summer Camp run by and for disabled young people – in the Catskills, New York state. Original high quality footage shot by a young group of film-makers is combined with personal handheld camera archive. We are transported back to the late 1960s and a time of outdoor pleasures, nature and partying in groups. These original archives are interspersed with extracts from mainstream TV disability documentaries. This includes harrowing footage of the deeply dehumanising and notorious Willowbrook institution. Jened and Willowbrook sit in stark distinction from one another. One is a radical experimental place for the constitution of new kinds of living. The other is an all too familiar tale of institutional neglect and professional incompetence, sadly still relevant to the present day (Ryan, 2017).

Various talking heads appear and campers and counsellors reflect back with nostalgic joy on the hippy, heady and utopian summer days of the camp. One counsellor describes his surprise at seeing so many disabled people in one place at one time. We are treated to the rolling film of excited young people arriving by bus. Some are carried down the stairs of the coach to be landed into their wheelchairs. Others with sensory impairments are guided by hands. Others excitedly making their way through the entrance into the familiar surroundings of what seems to be the quintessential US summer camp context.  There is a fine soundtrack of sixties music. ‘It was crazy in a good way’ remembers one camper, ‘When we were there there was no outside world’.

This inside world is very different to wider society. There are ramps for wheelchairs into the wooden blocks. And we are struck by the mix of very different physical, sensory and cognitive impairments (of campers and counsellors alike). Some of the young people recall being viewed as ‘Fire Hazards in their school’. In camp they are cigarette-smoking objects of lust and attraction. There are guitars, sunshine and beers. This is a funny film. Interviewees remember the hierarchy of disability in the real world. When one of the central players in the movie recalls telling his mother that he was marrying a young woman with Cerebral Palsy she replied ‘Why can’t you marry a Polio?!’ (People with Polio are described as occupying a higher social position than those with Cerebral Palsy at that time in the States).  Another camper describes being taught how to kiss by a counsellor (the best physical therapy he had ever had) and footage captures reactions to an outbreak of crabs (the sexually transmitted infection).

This is also a moving documentary.  A handheld camera captures the revealing thoughts of a group of disabled young people as they reflect on the attitudes of their parents.  They do not fall into easy accusations of paternalism. Instead they understand over-protection in terms of fear and wider societal discrimination. The desire for privacy is shared. There is a clear demonstration of the joys of being with other people who share similar thoughts, lifeworlds and desires. And the summer end of camp brings tears and sadness to those leaving. The abandon, adventure and promise of youth shines through.

Crip Camp quickly spins off into a series of parallel life stories of a number of the key players from Jened.  We follow these young disabled people’s journeys into adulthood. What becomes clear is that philosophies and practices developed in Jened become realised in the wider world. Jimmy LeBrecht was worried about his leaky body but found others as leaky as him when he arrived at camp. He moves through graduating from school and onto college. We are introduced to Larry Allison the camp director. Think; The Pied Piper if he played guitar in The Grateful Dead. His own spoken words recall his radical ambitions to turn Jened into a place where ‘teenagers could be teenagers’ and counsellors needed to change their perspectives because the biggest problem for disabled people was ‘people without disabilities’. The rich arc and rising star of Judy Heumann, camp counsellor and soon to be major US disability activist, emerges as a force to reckon with as she leads her fellow disabled activists into a flurry of campaigns, protests and occupations. 

Crip Camp cleverly juxtaposes these individual life stories against a sociohistorical backdrop of post-war American society. Anti-discrimination legislation is absent but youth politics is ubiquitous. We travel into the midst of the 1972 Rehabilitation Act which had buried within it elements of anti-discriminatory legislation (initially vetoed by Nixon’s Administration). We are transported to Berkeley, California and the ground-breaking Centre for Independent Living where numerous Jened campers connect with other disabled comrades. Here some of the most renowned disability studies thinkers are born (including Corbett O’Toole and Ed Roberts who cut their teeth at the CIL). We meet up regularly with Judy Heumann and fellow activists in their continued efforts to challenge for disability access.

This narrative move from the camp to the wider disability community is compelling. Just as the original campers mature so too does the sophistication of disability politics. Much of what campers learnt at Jened – such as advocacy, agitation and organisation –  they develop further in their activism; putting into practice collective and democratic decision making. An African American camp counsellor reflects on the shared experiences of marginalisation on the part of disabled and black people alike. Members of the Black Panthers feed disabled activists as they occupy the Health, Education and Welfare buildings in San Francisco. Feminist and Lesbian comrades offer support in the form of access to washing facilities. We are reminded that the early days of American disability politics were closely aligned with black, feminist and queer activism. This is intersectional politics in practice. And then our disabled paradigm-busters move onto Washington to take on the US administration.  It’s worth noting that the Obamas established the production company, Higher Ground Productions, and this documentary curates a powerful civil rights struggle. Crip Camp is being viewed in a time of #Blacklivematter. This film makes some explicit connections between Black and Disability politics.

This is a truly beautiful film that celebrates the lives of disabled people. The positive representation and the accounts coming from these disabled people illuminates the continual discrimination this group conitnues to face all around the world. There is no mawkish stereotypical treatment here.  Super-cripple narratives of ‘overcoming’ the pathologized disabled body or mind are conspicuous by their absence. There is representation of disabled people as parents; something that disabled people are often seen as not being able to readily achieve. One activist explains that he loves being a dad because his son is the only person in his life that does not question his disability, to him he is just ‘his dad’. This sentiment hammers home that discrimination towards disabled people, the questioning of the capacity to achieve basic human goals, is a neverending barrier throughout their lives.  This is a paradigm-shifting cultural text that celebrates the imaginative, collectivist and affirmative qualities of disability politics. This is crip activism illuminated, up close and personal, testimony to distributed skills and competencies, interdependence in action. There is also something profound about watching disabled people enjoying the wonderful outdoors of New York state and occupying government buildings in these times of lockdown. When we come out of this Covid-19 nightmare into a new normal one gets a sense that much can be learnt from disabled people in terms of reconnecting and re-energising communities and alliances.

Dan Goodley, iHuman, School of Education, University of Sheffield.

Ruby Goodley, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester.

Rebecca Lawthom, iHuman, School of Education, University of Sheffield.

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