In the 1960’s, the Black Civil Rights Movement led to a foundation that is still felt today thanks to Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a focus of curriculum for schools across America.
However, there is a movement which happened not long after that you don’t often learn about in school, and that is the Disability Rights Movement. On March 25, 2020, a documentary was released which encapsulated that movement and its beginnings called Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.
The first half of the film takes place in 1971 at Camp Jened, which was a summer camp in Hunter Mountain in the Catskills of New York. The hippie spirit of the 1960’s is still very much alive in the footage, as campers freely play instruments, sing, and date one another just like any summer camp. One scene shows footage of campers freely dancing outside while Richie Havens’ notable anthem, “Freedom,” plays in the background, beautifully capturing the essence of the camp and the film itself.
Founder Larry Allison depicted the camp’s mission perfectly in an audio recording in the film. “When the camp started back in the 50’s, it was the traditional kind of camp program,” he said. “As it evolved during the 60’s and into the 70’s, what we tried to do was provide the kind of environment where teenagers could be teenagers, without all the stereotypes and the labels.”
Because the camp was run by disabled people, for disabled people, the campers felt like they had a place to call home without judgment or ridicule for being who they are. The campers there had a wide range of disabilities like polio and cerebral palsy, as well as people who could speak and others who could not speak at all.
Despite that, it’s easy to see that everyone had a voice and was included, which became a crucial element of the Disability Rights Movement that soon followed.
Early on, Judy Heumann, who was one of the lead camp counselors that later founded the organization, Disabled in Action, serves as the main hero in the story. She took the sense of community and belonging she found in the camp and used it to gather other disabled people to fight for the accessibilities we know today.
Without her and her supporters, handicap ramps and other common accommodations would not be nearly as common as they are today. As Heumann said herself, “For me, the camp experience really was empowering because we helped empower each other that the status quo is not what it needed to be.”
The documentary pulls at the heartstrings, too, as it shows news footage of the Willowbrook State Hospital in New York, which displays disabled children forced to sleep in wooden carts for beds and lying helpless in their own excrement without anyone assisting them.
It was not dissimilar to the institutions autistic children and adults have been placed in throughout history from a lack of proper care or understanding. Despite the graphic and saddening nature of the footage, it helps add context to some of the conditions that Disability in Action was fighting to remedy.
Instead of being isolated from the public, it is now more common to see disabled people on the streets because of Heumann’s bravery and heroism. Although society has a long way to go in making the world more accessible for disabled individuals, Heumann’s efforts created a jumping point that disability rights activists still use as a blueprint.
With the Neurodiversity Movement occurring today, Crip Camp can serve as a wonderful influence for neurodivergent people looking to stand up for their rights and be recognized as valuable voices in their communities.