Before the Obama-produced documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution dropped on Netflix in January, it received quite a build-up.
Everyone was praising the documentary — well, the idea of the documentary — for offering a platform for disability representation.
But when Crip Camp dropped, nobody actually seemed to watch it. And it’s a damn shame.
Crip Camp marketed itself as a documentary about a hippie-dippie camp for kids with disabilities in the 1970s. The trailer (below) showed kids with various physical and mental abilities laughing and being free to be children, possibly for the first time in their lives.
But the documentary is about so much more than that and, in fact, the parts about the actual camp itself are probably the least interesting bits.
Because after we leave the camp behind, we follow a few of the camp alums as they get heavily involved in the disability rights movement.
The most impressive by far is the incredible Judy Heumann who becomes a leader in the movement. She organizes sit-ins and protests, one of which basically shut down traffic in New York City.
The second half of the documentary mostly focuses on Judy and her camp friends as they fight hard for Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act to be enacted. The law is the very first to grant civil rights to those with disabilities, banning discrimination in any place that receives federal funding (schools, hospitals, etc.).
But even after the law was signed, it took endless fighting for it to actually be implemented. Judy and other disability civil rights leaders led a 20+ day sit-in in San Francisco — an impressive feat for anyone, but especially for a group that included individuals who couldn’t roll themselves over in the night to avoid bed sores or feed themselves. And yet, the activists never wavered.
And the community rallied around them. The Black Panthers sent food every day and a local nurse offered to come and wash anyone’s hair who wanted it.
When those in Washington ignored the sit-in, Judy took a small group to D.C to organize demonstrations and speak with senators (the trip was paid for by community supporters). In 1977, they finally won their first big battle and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare officially implemented Section 504. This meant that, among other things, every public school, every public hospital, every publicly-funded building had to have wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Every public sidewalk had to have mini ramps at the corners.
Section 504 was just the first disability civil rights win (remember, it only applied to institutions that received federal funding). It wasn’t until 1990, 13 years later, that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and prohibited any kind of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. That including jobs, schools, transportation, and more.
Perhaps what makes this documentary so incredibly special is that instead of using people with disabilities as inspiration porn, it presents people with disabilities as actual people first. And yes, what they’re doing is incredibly inspiring. But it’s not because they are people with disabilities who are living their lives. They’re inspirational for all the amazing things they do and for their amazing tenacity, not because they happen to be disabled.
The most poignant moment of the documentary comes towards the end, after Judy and the movement have won their fight for Section 504. Judy says,
“On the one hand, I’m feeling like I should say everything is wonderful [but] I don’t feel that’s at all what we talked about. And I’m very tired of being thankful for accessible toilets. I really am tired of feeling that way when I basically feel that if I have to feel thankful about an accessible bathroom, when am I ever gonna be equal in the community?”
And it’s true. We treat people with disabilities as second-class citizens. Our world is built for abled bodies and any accommodations otherwise are considered a nuisance (which is one of the ridiculous reasons that the implementation of Section 504 was delayed for so many years).
When we talk about equal rights, we rarely even bother to include people with disabilities, let alone discuss how to make our world more inclusive for them.
If nothing else, Crip Camp serves as an important reminder of the incredible privilege people with abled bodies live with every day and how much we need to open our eyes to the injustices around us.
But as you watch Judy and her friends fight for their rights, I have a feeling you’ll be nothing but inspired to join the fight right alongside her.
For seven years, Judy Heumann served as Special Advisor for International Disability Rights to President Barack Obama. The position has since remained vacant under Trump.