“I remember making out in the middle of the dining hall,” says LeBrecht, a Berkeley, Calif.-based sound designer who was born with spina bifida. “I’m 15 and she’s 17 and it’s just . . . yeah. Things were a little loose there.”
LeBrecht and his girlfriend were able to get around pretty easily in their wheelchairs, but even campers like his friend Denise Jacobson, who has cerebral palsy and needed more assistance, could go off and have their own summer fun. “Denise tells these amazing stories of being pushed by a counselor to some area where she would meet her boyfriend and they would make out,” he says. “There would be an arrangement where the counselor would come and bring her back at a prearranged time.”
The story LeBrecht and Newnham tell in “Crip Camp,” which won the Audience Award at Sundance and debuted March 25 on Netflix, is much bigger than Camp Jened itself, but they wanted to make sure viewers understood the camp was special, in part, for not being that special. This wasn’t a grim institution where parents could slough off their kids for a couple of months, but a place where teenagers were free to experiment and goof off without being micromanaged.
“The way we were treated at this camp was not the way we were treated at other camps or by society in general,” LeBrecht says. “Often people with disabilities were infantilized or just looked down upon, and you felt like you were a patient and not a camper.”
As a sound man, LeBrecht had worked closely with Newnham on her documentaries, including “The Rape of Europa,” about Nazi Germany’s plundering of European art works, and “The Revolutionary Optimists,” about children battling poverty on the streets of Kolkata, India. Over lunch, LeBrecht told her that he’d always wanted to make a movie about Camp Jened, and when he described the libertine experience to her, Newnham was taken aback. “Just the picture that he painted in my mind shifted the way I thought about people with disabilities,” Newnham says. “It was not a picture I had in my head.”
From there, LeBrecht pointed Newnham to a Facebook page where former campers and counselors were sharing pictures and memories of the place, many of them black-and-whites that were used in the film. But the biggest find was 5½ hours’ worth of archival footage recorded between 1971 and 1973 by the People’s Video Theater, which had wanted to hear about Jened directly from the campers themselves. In fact, LeBrecht had even handled the camera himself at one point to shoot a tour of the camp.
“It was magical,” Newnham says. “Jim and I got the hard drive of [the footage] and watched for four or five hours together. You had this feeling like you’ve fallen through a rabbit hole into another world.”
For LeBrecht, the experience of watching the old footage was more bittersweet. It brought back memories of summers where he “jumped out of bed” the first day of camp, eager to rekindle friendships he’d maintain through phone calls or letters throughout the years. It was also a reminder that many of these same people he missed or cared about have long since passed away.
“Crip Camp” pays homage to them by arguing that the camp was a foundational moment for the disability movement that followed. Though LeBrecht jokes that the “conversations about how life could be better happened more in the girls’ bunk than the boys’ bunk,” the environment at Camp Jened sowed the seeds of a revolution for kids who had grown up accepting the limits society had imposed on them. “The way we were treated by staff,” LeBrecht says, “some of whom had disabilities themselves, you realize that your life could be better than what you were experiencing outside of camp.”
As the documentary transitions out of Camp Jened and into the larger movement, a hero emerges in Judy Heumann, a former counselor who would become one of the most indefatigable advocates for disability rights. The People’s Video Theater footage includes a remarkable scene where she forges consensus over dinner options — lasagna wins the majority — but her leadership would win more substantive victories down the line. Though Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 of the bill, designed to protect the disabled from the discrimination, went largely unenforced. Leaders from both political parties balked at the prohibitive costs of accessibility, so Heumann and other activists, including many fellow Jened alums, took to the streets.
“We called Judy right away when we decided to do this,” Newnham says. “Because Jim had this theory that the [discussion] at the camp was a spark for some of the things that came later. One of the first things she said was the whole civil rights movement was going on around them and she remembers talking about that in the girls’ bunk after dark.” After all, Camp Jened wasn’t that far down the road from Woodstock.
As LeBrecht and Newnham were developing “Crip Camp” into a pocket history of the disability movement, culminating in the 28-day “504 Sit-In” that Heumann led at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1977, they got a surprising boost from Barack and Michelle Obama. Through their production label Higher Ground, the Obamas had picked up another documentary from Netflix the year before, “American Factory,” which would go on to win best documentary at the Academy Awards. But they were on board at an earlier stage here.
“They watched several cuts and gave feedback,” says Newnham.
Despite the Obamas’ involvement, one of the lessons of “Crip Camp” is that the fight for disability rights has never fit into neat ideological boxes. Richard Nixon put up roadblocks, but so did the Carter administration, which inspired the 504 Sit-In with its inaction on enforcing important regulations. The Americans With Disabilities Act was signed by President George H.W. Bush, and Heumann would go on to serve as a special adviser for international disability rights under Obama.
“Disability cuts across all political persuasions,” Newnham says. “One in 4 people have a disability. So even if you don’t have one, you’re almost certainly going to have loved ones who do.”
For LeBrecht and other activists, the fight goes on. “We have to continue to get the attention of the politicians that need to be educated. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we want your sympathy.’ We want you to think about how you choose to treat people. Are you going to say we’re disposable? Or that we’re a waste of money? We want this movie to keep the conversation going.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote to director Nicole Newnham. The story has been updated.