I was an extremely privileged disabled child. My parents were accepting and not abusive. I was never bullied or made fun of, and I had a clique of non-disabled girlfriends, who I hang out with to this day. My junior year at Cliffside Park High School in the great state of New Jersey, I was elected Student Council President. To train for my reign, I was required to attend a Leadership Training Conference. This conference was a sleepaway camp, and was my first time existing apart from the safety of my family and outside my one-square-mile-small town where everybody knew my name. I was the only visibly disabled camper at camp that year. Although my counsellors were supportive and inclusive, it was lonely being the only one of my kind. The struggle was real. The Americans with Disabilities Act had only been signed a few years earlier. The outdoor camp was completely inaccessible. As I dragged myself up the Appalachian Trail, I could never have imagined that decades earlier a camp existed for kids like me. Crip Camp tells the story of that fantastical place I never knew existed that changed the course of disabled history in America.
The narrator of Crip Camp, Jim Lebrecht, and I had danced in the same disability circles online for years before we met face-to-face for the first time. I was performing at the Disability Rights Education & Defence Fund’s 40th Anniversary Celebration in Berkeley, California, when Jim rolled up to me and shared an incredible secret. Michelle and Barack Obama had added Crip Camp to their Higher Ground Netflix slate. I’ve been in Hollywood many moons, a lot of people make you a lot of promises, but very few are kept. I congratulated Jim and wondered if I would ever see his dream come true on my screen or if it would be crushed by Hollywood like so many others. The Obamas’ word was their bond. Crip Camp just graced my Netflix stream and it was magic. I highly recommend putting it first on your pandemic playlist.
The documentary, which premieres on Netflix on March 25, follows a teenage Jim as he goes to Camp Jened in Hunter, New York. The camp was founded in the 1950s, and when Jim joined the fray in the early ‘70s, it was being run by a bunch of hippies and had become heaven on earth for disabled campers. Past and present, Jim is the perfect combination of fierce, sparkly, and fearless, which makes him an ideal narrator. Incredibly, this precious footage was never lost. Fifty years later, director Nicole Newnham has spun it together to create the disability documentary of a lifetime.
Disability is not a monolith, and Crip Camp surprisingly captures the diversity of our community. The campers came from all different backgrounds. There were kids like Jim, who — like me — had been mainstreamed, and were the only disabled person in his posse. There were campers who came from the real life horror show that was the Willowbrook Institution. Camp Jenad was also shockingly racially diverse. At a time when segregation was still alive and kicking in America, it was a utopia of equality, where people of different abilities and races worked together in harmony.
The camp crew that we meet through 15-year-old Jim’s lens is strikingly similar to the usual suspects we’ve seen in all of our favourite camp cult classics. There is Nanci D’angelo, the love interest; Steve Hoffman, the soulful hot guy; and Denise Jacobson, the girl that everyone wants to be friends with and everybody wants to sleep with. And then there is Judith Heumann, the Queen of Crip Camp. Every disability advocate knows her name. Judith is a legend in the disability rights movement and an artistic icon. In Crip Camp, we meet 23-year-old Heumann, who is a badass drop-dead gorgeous disabled counsellor. As soon as she appears on screen, she steals the show.
Camp Jenad was all about equality, which means treating disabled teens like teens. People with disabilities are often infantilised. The idea of us hooking up at camp is inconceivable to folks who haven’t really interacted with the community, and often even to our own parents. Crip Camp smashes all of these stereotypes. It is sexy, it is funny, and it is a priceless piece of disability history that challenges the world’s perception of its largest minority.
The frolicking at Camp Jenad gave birth to the disability rights movement in the United States. There is no Americans with Disabilities Act without it. Crip Camp follows the crooked path of these disability rights leaders from the woods of upstate New York to a triumph on the White House lawn. It is a much-needed reminder that Civil Rights must include Disability Rights. Separate is never equal and Crip Camp shines a light on how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go.
Maysoon Zayid is an actress, comedian, writer, and disability advocate. As a professional comedian, she has performed in top New York clubs and has toured extensively at home and abroad. She is the co-founder/co-executive producer of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival and author of Find Another Dream. Follow her on Twitter @maysoonzayid.
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