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Crip Camp reminds us that, in America, nothing improves without massive sacrifice

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A Netflix documentary explains how a camp for people with disabilities inspired an activist movement

In Crip Camp, the revolution begins at summer camp. The Netflix documentary, now available to stream, follows several young people who attended Camp Jened, a New York campground for people with disabilities. That alone is a wonderful subject: a story about what happens when a group of teens neglected by society finally discovers a place where they are treated as complete, whole people. But Crip Camp is going somewhere incredible, and a story about how a camp changed a group of teenagers’ lives becomes a story about how the country was changed for the better.

Directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim Lebrecht — the latter attended Camp Jened, and his story serves as one of Crip Camp’s focal points — the film begins in 1971 with Lebrecht and others attending the camp for the first time. Remarkably, the people at Camp Jened had a camera running and regularly interviewed the campers about everything: how they’re treated by the outside world, the privacy they long for that they are not afforded, the crushes they have. This is juxtaposed with present-day interview footage where attendees also reflect on that time in a place where they spoke with their own voices about their own desires and were listened to.

However, Camp Jened is only half the story, as Crip Camp follows Lebrecht and his fellow campers back into the real world where, radicalized by the compassion of their experience, they become the activists that became integral in the disability rights movement. The documentary culminates with their participation in 1977’s 504 Sit-In, a protest that led to significant changes in the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, a precursor to the modern-day Americans with Disabilities Act. (The difficulty of a sit-in by people with disabilities is not glossed over.)

Calling Crip Camp a feel-good movie feels contrary to its purpose, even as it is tremendously inspiring. It’s more of a reminder that something that seems impossible can be done; it just takes an immense, downright unfair amount of work to will it into existence and support from others who may not be impacted but benefit from a more equitable society because everyone does. In one memorable anecdote, the Black Panthers arrive during the 26-day 504 Sit-In to provide meals to the protestors at no cost, simply out of solidarity. In another, one lawmaker refused to listen to protestors’ concerns during a hearing, locking himself in his office until he was forced to return.

The problem, as one of the film’s few non-disabled interviewees notes, is not with people living with disabilities, but people without them — people who refuse to listen to those with disabilities or build a world that accommodates them, who turn a blind eye to their abuse, or limit their opportunities. The revolution is for the ablest world the majority made, and it’s cruel that changing it requires so much from those who are already vulnerable, while those not directly affected often just look on.

Crip Camp is refreshingly honest about the social change it chronicles, noting that laws are frequently undercut and only remain effective as long as the populace is vigilant. It’s a message that feels like a vital one during our current moment of socioeconomic upheaval where nearly every marginalized group feels under assault in some way, and what little legal protections each had are unceremoniously stripped away on a weekly basis.

But a vital reason why any of Crip Camp’s big-picture scope works at all is because it is so warm and ebullient in its first half, letting the young men and women who found their way to the now-closed Camp Jened — many of whom are no longer living — speak for themselves. It lets them talk about being somewhere they were expected to play ball instead of sitting the game out, where they were able to talk about normal teen things like being horny, and better understand the cracks in the outside world that threaten to swallow them up. It shows what can happen when you finally are in a room of people like yourself who share your struggles and are given the room to tell each other the truth and the freedom to dream of doing something about it.