When CRIP CAMP, a documentary film about the origins of the disability rights movement received a 2021 Oscar nomination, it was the first time in the 92-year history of the Academy Award that a wheelchair ramp was provided for nominees at the ceremony. A California Humanities California Documentary Project (CDP) Grant recipient, CRIP CAMP not only tells the story about Camp Jened, a Catskills-based summer camp dedicated entirely to disabled youth, but also documents the origin story of a national disability rights movement that can trace its roots to the camp. Featuring Jened campers (or “Jenedians”), viewers watch how the youth connect over their lived experiences, grow as activists in the disability rights movement—and enjoy summers of laughter, love, and camaraderie that remains with them for decades.
As a teenager in the 1970s, CRIP CAMP director Jim LeBrecht attended Camp Jened himself and worked with an experimental filmmaker, shooting hours of film of his fellow campers that would later make its way into the documentary. Much of the footage showcases activities one would expect from teenagers at a summer camp: getting into trouble, flirting, bickering, testing their newfound independence, and trying new things. When LeBrecht’s co-director, Nicole Newnham, watched the old reels, she was immediately drawn to the humor and playfulness of the young campers.
“I was hooked because seeing kids with disabilities goofing around, filled with such joy and experiencing such freedom and community together was so delightful and infectious and also something I realized that we never see represented in the media,” Newnham recalled.
CRIP CAMP also highlights the serious side of the disability rights and independent living movements—and their rich, California-based roots. Here, the first Center for Independent Living center opened near Berkeley in 1972. In 1977, disability rights activists staged a month-long sit-in in San Francisco to urge then-President Carter to implement the Rehabilitation Act’s Section 504 regulations (a precursor to the sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act). For many former Jenedians looking to sustain the community of disability rights activism they had built at summer camp, Northern California became a central hub.
“Like Camp Jened, the Bay Area represented the first experience of freedom to be themselves for so many people,” said Newnham. “For the Jenedians, it was the place where they could try to build something closer to what they had experienced at Jened in the larger world…. So being able to play a role in telling one of the Bay Area’s seminal and great civil rights stories was incredibly meaningful.”
Judy Heumann, former Jened camper and counselor, and current disability rights activist, praised CRIP CAMP and recalled how Camp Jened provided space for young disabled people to immerse themselves in the history—and the future—of disability rights.
“As the documentary shows, we spent our time at Camp Jened envisioning a world that was not set up in a way that excluded us. We started to have a common vision and ask our own questions,” Heumann wrote. “We came away from the camp knowing we wanted to make changes in society and recognizing lessons from the civil rights movement where people spoke on their own behalf to rectify injustice.”
When CRIP CAMP premiered on Netflix in 2020—with former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama as Executive Producers—it struck a powerful chord with viewers. That year, CRIP CAMP won the Sundance Festival’s Audience Award for US Documentary, was nominated for an Academy Award, and sparked conversations about disability rights activism across California and the world.
After the documentary’s premiere, CRIP CAMP creators organized an impact campaign, including socially distanced online workshops wherein activists and public members could discuss the intersectional nature of disability rights activism. On the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, one workshop featured special guests: the film’s executive producers, the Obamas.
“It was so moving to us to see all these young people, teenagers at Camp Jened, who left camp believing they could lead a worldwide movement—finding their voice and awakening to their power,” said Barack Obama of CRIP CAMP. “I can’t imagine a more important story to tell.”
In addition to CRIP CAMP, since 2003, California Humanities has awarded over 250 CDP grants totaling over $6.5 million to media projects that document California in all its complexity.