Behind the Disability Revolution Depicted in Netflix and the Obamas' New Documentary Crip Camp
"It feels like this film is awakening us all to this community and their important story," says director Nicole Newnham
In honor of ADA30 — the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act being signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990 — PEOPLE is reflecting on the 2020 Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, the April 2020 documentary from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions, tells the true story of how a summer camp for teenagers with physical and mental disabilities laid the groundwork for a civil rights victory.
Camp Jened was founded in 1951 in the Catskills in upstate New York with the intention of being a safe haven for youth with disabilities.
Activist Judy Heumann, 72, a polio survivor who has been in a wheelchair most of her life, and Jim LeBrecht, 63, who was born with spina bifida and has always used a wheelchair, recall their experiences at Camp Jened — and how it would inspire them to make history — in the documentary, which is now available to stream on Netflix. LeBrecht, a sound editor and producer, also co-directed the movie alongside Emmy winner Nicole Newnham.
“It feels like this film is awakening us all to this community and their important story,” Newnham tells PEOPLE. “We realized, ‘Wow, we could really trace a line from this motley little hippie summer camp to this small empowered group of people that changed the world.”
Newnham says she spent two years researching the documentary with LeBrecht, filling their finished film with “a lot of archives and boxes of materials that nobody had gone through.”
After introducing views to Camp Jened, the film pivots to the disability rights movement that was beginning to take shape in the 1970s. Many former campers began to realize they could lend their voices to making change.
“[At Camp Jened] we were able to envision a world that didn’t have to be set up in a way that excluded us,” says Heumann. “We started to have a common vision and were beginning to talk about things like, ‘Why are buses not accessible?'”
“I had this sense that the world was unfair,” adds LeBrecht. “As a young teenager I realized, ‘Wow, we can actually fight back.'”
The film’s most stirring sequence depicts the 1977 civil rights protest known as the 504 Sit-in, where more than 150 activists with disabilities refused to leave San Francisco’s Federal Building for 25 days, the longest sit-in at a federal building in history. Heumann, who led the protest with Kitty Cone, was on a mission to call for regulations to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which had been passed earlier and prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities but had yet to be enforced.
The occupation eventually resulted in new regulations being signed, which guaranteed people with disabilities equal rights in the workplace and laid the groundwork for the American with Disabilities Act in 1990.
But Newnham says some battles remain: “Access to health care, more equitable access to transportation… Hopefully this film encourages people to support the activists who are still fighting for change.”
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is now available to stream on Netflix.