A still from "Crip Camp" by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Steve Honigsbaum

When James “Jim” LeBrecht was 15 years old, he picked up a video camera and pointed it at Camp Jened, a utopian summer camp in upstate New York for teenagers with disabilities. That summer day in 1971 was a seminal moment in the future filmmaker’s life as LeBrecht introduced his fellow campers to the camera.

The film footage LeBrecht captured would later be included in Crip Camp – a documentary he and fellow Oakland filmmaker Nicole Newnham directed and produced, along with Sara Bolder (LeBrecht’s wife), and former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. It is now one of the five documentaries nominated for an Academy Award and can be seen on Netflix.

“We never in our wildest dreams could have imagined that we’d end up partnering with President and Mrs. Obama and reaching a global audience,” said Newnham. “That we’d be the opening night film at Sundance and that it would lead to the Oscar nomination.”

Disability rights at the center of ‘Crip Camp’

Crip Camp tells the story of the civil rights struggle for disability rights, a social justice movement that has largely been left out of the history books.

Centered in part on Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers and young adults with disabilities near Woodstock, NY that was as free-spirited as the 1969 music festival, the film shows how some of the campers went on to become among the most prominent civil rights activists of their time. They were instrumental in pushing lawmakers to pass the federal Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, a revolutionary law banning discrimination against people living with disabilities.

Crip Camp captures the years before the ADA passed in 1990. Former campers interviewed in the film describe being banned from public schools, or if they did attend school, being segregated from other students. Institutionalization was a common practice and accessible buildings, transportation, and even bathrooms were virtually nonexistent before the ADA. Even getting mail from the post office could be a struggle, as most of the buildings were not accessible. Sidewalks didn’t have curb cuts and many structures didn’t have elevators. In one scene in the movie, LeBrecht describes climbing the stairs of Grand Central Station on his hands and knees, pulling his wheelchair behind him, while commuters walked around him.

The filmmakers wanted to document the long history of discrimination in the U.S. against people with disabilities and highlight how the activism of those from Camp Jened dramatically changed living conditions for the disabled.

“We had a grand vision that it (the documentary) could reframe the way people thought about disability and could change the world,” said Newnham.

The idea for “Crip Camp” started roughly six years ago when LeBrecht took Newnham out to eat in Berkeley. Over lunch, LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida, pitched some of his ideas for documentaries by and about people with disabilities. The story that resonated with Newnham was LeBrecht’s formative summer at Camp Jened.

“I told her I thought I could smoke dope with the counselors, and I grabbed Nicole’s interest on that one, thank god,” said LeBrecht.

“It was one of those moments when you hear the story and you start to see the film in your head,” added Newnham.

LeBrecht and Newnham had collaborated on sound work for projects in the past, but Crip Camp is their first time directing a film together. Newnham, a longtime documentary director and producer, won an Emmy in 2017 for outstanding new approaches in documentary filmmaking for Collision, which used virtual reality technology, according to IMDB. This is her first time being nominated for an Academy Award.

LeBrecht has more than 40 years of experience as a sound designer. He moved to Berkeley after graduating from college in San Diego to work at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. He stayed there 10 years and for some of that time, LeBrecht had to navigate the narrow corridors of the old theater building without accommodations for his disability. LeBrecht also worked at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley and Skywalker Sound in Marin County. In 1996, he founded Berkeley Sound Artists. an audio post-production house.

“In 1980, Berkeley Rep opened a new larger theater and because, of (new laws), that new building had to be accessible,” LeBrecht explains in “Crip Camp.” “As the barriers around me started to disappear, I realized that this bar that I set for myself, that I had to overcome my disability, had taken a toll on me. It was denying a part of who I am.”

LeBrecht’s life story plays a central role in the film, Another main character is Judy Heumann, who worked as a counselor at Camp Jened in the early 1970s. The film traces how she and other activists, including Kitty Cone, pushed lawmakers in April 1977 to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a law that made it illegal for any company receiving federal funds to discriminate against people with disabilities. Regulations to enforce the law had not been written, so Heumann and others occupied the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (H.E.W.) for 25 days to push for change.

Judy Heumann. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

The protesters, some of which were on a hunger strike, had the support of a broad coalition of civil rights organizations. Members of the Black Panther Party brought food from Oakland to the activists occupying the H.E.W. building. The United Farm Workers, Gray Panthers, Glide Memorial and others supported the sit-in. The protest got national media attention and raised Americans’ awareness of the struggles those with disabilities faced. On April 28, Joseph A. Califano, the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Department, signed regulations into law. In 2010, Obama appointed Heumann to the U.S. Department of State, where she served as the first special advisor for international disability rights until 2017.

Other notable characters include Larry Allison, the director and founder of Camp Jened who went on to work in disability services for the state of New York. Campers Denise Sherer Jacobson and Neil Jacobson first met at Camp Jened but started dating later after meeting again on the West Coast. The Jacobsons shared their love story in a 2011 interview with SF Gate. Today, the Jacobsons live in Oakland. In the film, Ms. Jacobson talks about her experiences with discrimination from the medical establishment and how these experiences sparked her interest in human sexuality. Ms. Jacobson is also a writer who was featured in a 2013 New York Times photo essay, which chronicles her daily life as she navigates the world with a disability.

The making of a culture-changing project

Initially, LeBrecht and Newnham planned on hiring disabled actors to recreate some of the scenes from LeBrecht’s time at Camp Jened. Instead, they opted to use archival footage captured by the People’s Video Theater, a radical filmmaking group that visited Camp Jened for a week in 1971 and gave the campers handheld cameras to film their experiences. That is when LeBrecht gave the tour of Camp Jened that is included in “Crip Camp”.

The filmmakers’ timing was serendipitous. Howard Gutstadt, the co-founder of the People’s Video Theater, was in the process of digitizing film from the group’s time at Camp Jened when the filmmakers called.

“I was just on a call with Howard talking about the Academy Award nomination and we just feel like there is some kind of supernatural force guiding this whole thing,” said Newnham, who explained the filmmakers struggled to find video footage about the disability rights movement because the story was under reported at the time and has been neglected by history books today.

The Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions had just launched in 2018 when the filmmakers pitched the idea for “Crip Camp” to Priya Swaminathan, producer and co-leader of the production company. About a week after watching the trailer for “Crip Camp”, Swaminathan came to Berkeley to meet the filmmakers. Newnham said Swaminathan told the filmmakers that she and the Obamas felt “Crip Camp” had the potential to change cultural perceptions of disability, and signed on to release the film.

Berkeley played a central role in the disability rights movement

In the early 1970s, many campers-turned-activists from Camp Jened made the move out west, where the warm weather made life marginally better for people with mobility challenges. LeBrecht went to college in San Diego. Heumann and fellow camper and activist, Nanci D’Angelo, moved to Berkeley to work at the Center for Independent Living, an organization that launched in 1972 and hired people living with disabilities to help their peers lead independent lives.

Berkeley was the epicenter of the early stages of the disability rights movement. Cal students Ed Roberts, Hale Zuckas, and Jan McEwan Brown pushed for changes to the university’s (and eventually the city’s) infrastructure like curb cuts to make it easier for people in wheelchairs to get around.

“Berkeley is an important character in the film and as much as the film is a love letter to the disability community, it’s also a love letter to Berkeley,” said Newnham.

Eddie Ytuarte, a contributor to the KPFA Pushing Limits radio show about disability issues, said that one of the things that he loved most about Crip Campwas that it shows campers like Heumann as youngsters in upstate New York and follows them to the Bay Area.

“Some people around the disability movement think that there is something magical about Berkeley,” said Ytuarte. “They think that without Berkeley, we wouldn’t have the disability movement. I think that it’s nonsense. I think it could have happened anywhere. It’s not a matter of geography. It’s a matter of the disability movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The movement created the Ed Roberts and Judy Heumanns.”

“I think that people can look at the story of ‘Crip Camp’ and see how the principles of organizing that the people involved were able to use,” said LeBrecht. “Folks with disabilities were showing up at rallies for gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights, we cut across all strata of society.”

‘Crip Camp’ brings visibility to the disabled community

Crip Camp captures the resolve and sacrifice that activists like Heumann, LeBrecht, and many others, made to create a better future for people living with disabilities. This chapter of the civil rights movement has been largely ignored by the history books and is not taught in the education system, explained Stuart James, executive director of the Center for Independent Living (CIL).

Many of the youth who visit the CIL today are unaware of what life was like before the ADA was passed in 1990, said James, which is why films like Crip Camp are so important.

“This is an important piece of history that is not well documented and not taught in schools,” said James. “Whenever we can get exposure to the disability rights movement it’s fantastic.”

Crip Camp is by no means a full accounting of the struggle for disability rights, and despite the progress that has been made since his summers at Camp Jened, there is still a long way to go before the disability community reaches true representation, said LeBrecht.

Lawmakers aiming to weaken the protection against discrimination that the ADA affords people with disabilities continue to attack the law, he said. Recently, anti-maskers attempted to invoke the ADA to skirt mask mandates for protection against COVID-19, according to Insider. The COVID pandemic has also threatened the well-being of people with disabilities, making some immunocompromised people more susceptible to infection, as well as the risk of healthcare rationing based on perceptions about the quality of life for people with disabilities.

“Decisions were made that because a person had a disability, that their quality of life was not as important as somebody else’s and healthcare was withheld,” said LeBrecht.

The goal of “Crip Camp” is to break down some of the fear and mystery around disability, and tell the story of how the disability rights struggle began and continues today, explained LeBrecht and Newnham.

“You realize that if you can engage an audience in a story like this it has the chance to shatter so many misconceptions and tropes around disability,” said Newnham.

The 93rd Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, April 25.