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A summer camp that enabled the disabled

Judy Heumann in "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution."
Judy Heumann in "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution."HolLynn D'Lil/Netflix

The ubiquitous sidewalk ramps, wheelchair-accessible buildings and buses, and other essential aids for people with disabilities that are now taken for granted did not just happen. Like other civil-rights milestones, they came from years of effort and sacrifice by determined activists. As Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s uplifting and essential documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” shows, this transformation sprang in part from the unique program at Camp Jened, a rough-around-the-edges summer retreat “for the handicapped” located in the Catskills not far from the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, that counter-cultural Woodstock spirit also animated Camp Jened. Run by laid-back, hippie-ish counselors, the place offered the usual camp activities of sports, campfires, swimming, and handicrafts, and they insisted that everyone participate to the best of their ability and without fear of judgment. They encouraged social bonding and even participation in the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle of the era. Counselors and campers passed bongs, played guitars, and sang Grateful Dead songs (the film boasts an outstanding classic rock soundtrack). There were few restrictions about campers having sex, which for most was a new and revelatory experience. Not even an outbreak of pubic lice could dim their ardor.

This freedom and solidarity transformed the campers and intensified their awareness of the limitations imposed on them when they returned to the real world. Almost all came from homes where they were isolated in special classes or kept out the public eye by parents who wanted to protect them or were ashamed to have them seen. Even those fortunate enough to enjoy limited independence recognized that the world was not made with their needs in mind. Instead they confronted almost insurmountable obstacles to fulfilling their hopes and living normal lives.

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But for Camp Jened alumnae like Judy Heumann, these conditions were no longer acceptable. She recognized that as the largest oppressed minority in the country (a recent count puts the number at 56 million) change would have to be initiated by themselves. In 1970 she helped found the organization Disabled in Action (DIA) and enlisted many of her campmates to participate in the movement. Their demonstrations helped pass the Rehabilitation Act in 1973. In 1977, when the Department of Health Education delayed enforcing a key provision of that legislation, Heumann organized a heroic 25-day sit-in at the Regional HEW office in San Francisco and a march in Washington D.C. to demand compliance.

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That effort marks the dramatic climax of the film, with archival footage of people with various disabilities refusing to budge despite sleeping on floors, lacking food (the Black Panthers pitched in by bringing hot meals), and requiring special needs. The demonstration was inadequately covered in the media at the time, and it will be news to many watching the film. Moving and revelatory, this reminder of a turning point in civil-rights history makes this film a must-see.

As do the individual stories of camp alumni, which they recall with verve, humor, and poignancy. Those interviewed include Heumann, Jim LeBrecht, who is also the film’s co-director, and Denise Sherer Jacobson, who frequently steals the show. Her cerebral palsy limits her speech, but she exploits the impairment for comic timing, building her anecdotes to an often hilarious and sometimes off-color punchline (she might be partly responsible for the film’s R rating).

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But the humor can turn dark, as with her recollection of how she lost her virginity to a bus driver and caught gonorrhea. It was misdiagnosed as appendicitis and her healthy appendix was removed. The surgeon was incredulous that she could have contracted an STD, because, Jacobson surmises, he thought “how could I be sexually active? Who would want to [here she uses an unprintable word for sexual intercourse] with me?”

The experience inspired her to get a master’s degree in human sexuality.

The experience of watching “Crip Camp’ might inspire you to reexamine your attitudes about disabled people and how society treats them. Though occasionally sentimental and preachy, it is an essential reminder of a civil-rights struggle that many have forgotten and a cause that has yet to be fully achieved.

★★★

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

Directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht. On Netflix. 106 min. Rated R (for some language, including sexual references).

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.