How a Free-Spirited Summer Camp for Disabled Teens in the '70s Changed the World
"For two months out of the year, I had this experience where I wasn't an 'other,'" says one of the camp's attendees
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.
Summer camps can be transformative places for teens: it’s where many often have their first kiss and form life-long friendships. Camp Jened, founded in 1951 in the Catskills in upstate New York, was one such place for teenagers with physical and mental disabilities.
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 Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. LeBrecht also co-directed the movie alongside Nicole Newnham.
“There was a finite amount of time at camp, and very close relationships were developed,” Heumann tells PEOPLE. “I really think it boosted people’s sense of self. It allowed people to really value who they are and what their dreams were.”
“For two months out of the year, I had this experience where I wasn’t an ‘other,'” adds LeBrecht. “I even found my first girlfriend there.”
In the 1970s, as the disability rights movement was beginning to take shape, 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?'”
Heumann was already politically active by the time LeBrecht arrived at camp at the age of 15 in 1971 (she was in her early 20s at the time). “I had this sense that the world was unfair,” he says. “As a young teenager I realized, ‘Wow, we can actually fight back.'”
In 1977, Heumann led, with Kitty Cone, a 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. The aim: 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.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is now available to stream on Netflix.