8 Lessons the Documentary “Crip Camp” Taught a Blind Millennial  | The COVID-19 Experience from the NOD Team

May 1, 2020

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Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is a 2020 American documentary film, about a groundbreaking summer camp which galvanizes a group of teens with disabilities to help build a movement toward greater equality. The film features Larry Allison, Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and Stephen Hofmann.

April 30, 2020 | Blog by Charles Catherine, Special Assistant, NOD

When I started working for the National Organization on Disability in 2018, one of my first assignments was to join a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Labor to discuss the section 14(c)  of the Fair Labor Standards Act (a provision that allows companies under certain conditions to pay people with disabilities sub-minimum wage). I was told Judith Heumann would attend the meeting. I’ll admit,  I knew little about her. I had seen a great Drunk History episode about her life, and I knew in 1977 she led a 25-day sit-in demanding the signing of regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the United States. (It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal support). At that meeting, I could tell just by listening to Judy that she not only has had incredible experiences, but she also is empathetic. I couldn’t see her, but I felt that she was looking at me as someone who had been there before, who could relate to my experiences and understood me.

When I heard Barack and Michelle Obama had produced a documentary on the birth of the disability rights movement, that this documentary would feature Judy, and that it would come out for the 30th anniversary of the ADA, I was anxious to find out how they pulled everything from that incredible time, including Judy’s role, together.

Here are eight lessons I took away after watching Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution:

  1. Language is key
    The title of this documentary, “Crip Camp” refers to Camp Jened, a summer retreat in the Catskills where, from 1951 to 1977, young people with disabilities first experienced the joys of community. Judy was a counselor there. No one actually calls the place “Crip Camp,” but it is a great way to reclaim the term crippled that was often used in mainstream media then, and it sets the tone for a documentary that is not overly concerned with making anyone, abled or disabled, feel comfortable.
  2. I’m not alone
    When Judy was a child, her public school refused to allow her to attend class, calling her a “fire hazard”. Apparently in America, if one has polio and uses a wheelchair, one can become president, but can’t go to school. At my small level, fighting for accessibility means: having the energy to write to a company letting them know their website isn’t accessible, having the confidence to ask for the right accommodations at work, or not being discouraged when I am told I can’t register for a swim race because it would be “too dangerous” for a blind athlete to swim in the East River. Learning more about Judy’s life helped me overcome those challenges, made me realize that I wasn’t alone.
  3. “There is no power greater for change than a community discovering what it cares about,” wrote author Margaret Wheatley.
    My favorite moment of the documentary comes  when we watch campers candidly share their hardships in group conversations. It is like watching the birth of a community. They talk about their lack of privacy, their overprotective parents, the indifference of strangers, all things that I can relate to, 50 years later. A lovely couple, Neil and Denise Jacobson,  who both have cerebral palsy, met at this camp and experienced firsthand a lot of ableism, even from their own family. Neil confessed that when his parents learned that he was engaged to Denise, they told him: “We understand why you’d want to marry someone with cerebral palsy, but couldn’t you try to marry someone who has polio instead?” (In their mind, people with polio were considered at a higher level of function than people with cerebral palsy)
  4. Suffering can turn into a creative force
    Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation, either to react with bitterness, or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” Thanks to Judy and to all her fellow activists, the signing of Section 504 in 1977, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have changed a lot of norms, this progress was fueled by many years of suffering and exclusion.
  5. “There is no failure except in no longer trying.” Elbert Hubbard, writer and artist
    Unsurprisingly, despite that meeting with the Secretary of Labor in 2018, 14(c) is still in vigor today in America; it remains legal for companies to pay people with disabilities subminimum wages. But thanks to Judy and her calm demeanor, that day I realized you may never know what results come from your action, but if you do nothing, there will be no result.
  6. Disability is a form of diversity
    “Crip Camp” repeatedly links the struggles of the disabled to other fights for civil rights. It begins with one of the counselors, Lionel Je’ Woodyard, an African-American from Mobile, Alabama, who remembers seeing similarities in the treatment of blacks in the South and the shunning of the disabled. Later, we see the Black Panthers bringing hot meals to keep the protesters fed during the 504 sit-in in San Francisco. HolLynn D’Lil, a journalist who became a paraplegic after a road accident, even confesses that the protest  taught her that disabled rights were rights for everyone.
  7. A coherent organizing model is essential for effective work
    When we watch in the documentary disabled demonstrators famously dragging themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building to bring about ramps, curb cuts and other essential accessibility provisions, we watch a community that is not just determined but also organized. Although people with disabilities constitute one of the largest minorities in the United States, and even if this is a minority that we each could join at any time, to this day, the disability population is not deemed by many economic and political forces to have much clout. The history of this movement is still very much being written, and it is always good to remember that as writer and anthropologist Margaret Mead famously put it “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
  8. We need to keep this energy alive
    The documentary ends with former camper Jim LeBrecht and others returning to the site of Camp Jened, which closed in 1977 for financial reasons. Denise Jacobson has this great quote: “I almost want to get out of my wheelchair and kiss the fucking dirt.For Denise and her friends, everything started there, and it is up to us to keep this energy alive. The National Organization on Disability will honor Judy Heumann at its annual event, the Leading Disability Employers Dinner in September. We will have a chance to celebrate a role model, but also a chance to remind ourselves that we still have a lot of work ahead of us, that together, we are stronger than we think. It is deeply worrying that, amid an unprecedented crisis right now, we see many cases where the specific needs of the disability community are being overlooked. As we design systems for the future, it is important we do not repeat the wrongs of the past.

Charles Edouard Catherine joined the National Organization on Disability in 2018 as the special assistant to the president, Carol Glazer. With a background in Global Health, he served for several years as the executive director of the Surgeons of Hope Foundation. He successfully led the expansion of the organization from operating a solo program in Nicaragua to several ongoing, congruent programs throughout Latin America. A 2012 graduate of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France, Charles holds a Master’s degrees in International Relations. Charles is also a classical pianist of 25 years, a marathoner, and an elite triathlete.

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