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How a camp for disabled children changed lives

Can summer camp change the world? The documentary “Crip Camp” makes the case that one particular camp impacted the lives not only of the young people there but the culture at large, through the fight for disability rights. The film, from the production company of Barack and Michelle Obama, is vying for an Oscar this Sunday. Jeffrey Brown has a look for our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

AIRED: April 22, 2021 | 0:05:13
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Can summer camp change the world? The documentary "Crip Camp" makes the

case that one particular camp impacted the lives not only of the young people there,

but the culture at large, through the fight for disability rights. The film, from the

production company of Barack and Michelle Obama, is vying for an Oscar this Sunday.

Jeffrey Brown has our look for our arts and culture series, Canvas. WOMAN: And then, when

I went to Jened... WOMAN: There I was. I was in Woodstock. JEFFREY BROWN: Summer camp in

Upstate New York, 1971, fun and frolicking, a Woodstock era vibe. But Camp Jened was an

unusual camp for young people with a wide range of disabilities. CAMP ATTENDEE: Come

to Camp Jened and find yourself. JEFFREY BROWN: And that, says Jim Lebrecht, an attendee born

with spina bifida, made all the difference. JAMES LEBRECHT, Co-Director, "Crip Camp":

Boy, I have to tell you, as a 15-year-old, it was like freedom. You didn't feel like

you were a spectacle. You didn't feel like people were staring at you. You didn't feel

like you were a burden. JEFFREY BROWN: Which was different from life back at home? JAMES

LEBRECHT: Yes. You knew you were really different. There, I wasn't different. JEFFREY BROWN:

Many years later, Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham have made "Crip Camp," a documentary about

Camp Jened and the larger disability rights movement. It features interviews with former

campers and counselors. CAMP ATTENDEE: I just feel like these people are crazy, I mean,

in a good way. JEFFREY BROWN: And archival footage shot in the '70s. It then follows

camp participants who became trailblazers in a wider struggle. NICOLE NEWNHAM, Co-Director,

"Crip Camp": It really all started with this theory that Jim had, which was that the camp

was connected to this change that happened. And the idea was to try very hard to kind

of go back and find those seminal moments that connected through these characters that

you meet as a band of friends in summer camp. And kind of filling that in, I think, enabled

us to see something which otherwise we wouldn't be able to see, which is the impact of something

very small and how it grows into something big. JEFFREY BROWN: Among the key protagonists,

Judy Heumann, a camp counselor who'd contracted polio as a child. She would go on to become

a leading disability rights activist. JUDY HEUMANN, Camp Counselor: They were announcing:

Paraplegics stop traffic in Manhattan. JEFFREY BROWN: In this scene at a New York City protest.

JUDY HEUMANN: There were only 50 of us. But, basically, with the one street, we were able

to shut the city down. JAMES LEBRECHT: Judy just opened up my mind about the fact that,

oh, my gosh, we can actually fight back? Like, this isn't fair. I mean, I know it's not fair

that I have a hard time getting around in the real world, but that we actually have

legal recourse? NICOLE NEWNHAM: And the structure that we thought of was like this camp experience

of liberation was like a stone thrown in a pond. And you saw the ripples outward. And

as the ripples of the impact of that liberatory experience grow, the movement grows and the

community grows with it. JEFFREY BROWN: The film follows former campers who moved to California's

Bay Area and built a flourishing community. ANNOUNCER: A small army of the handicapped

have occupied this building for the past 11 days. JEFFREY BROWN: Several took part in

a harrowing 1977 sit-in in San Francisco to demand federal regulations guaranteeing civil

rights for the disabled. WOMAN: That's when people started really feeling like we couldn't

leave, because no one knew what we were talking about, but we knew that they were trying to

rescind the regulations. MAN: So, I figured, OK, we're going to have to spend the night.

(LAUGHTER) JEFFREY BROWN: That activism would culminate in the landmark 1990 Americans With

Disabilities Act, prohibiting discrimination based on disability and bringing changes to

many aspects of American life. Many years later, though, that fight continues. Lebrecht

himself, a veteran sound designer, has pushed for more representation of the disabled in

television and movies, on and off camera. JAMES LEBRECHT: What I believe is that the

entertainment industry needs to really embrace us as part of their diversity and inclusion

efforts and apply the same mentorships and opportunities for people within the community

to establish and cultivate their careers. The fact of the matter is, is that because

you may not see us working side by side on a set or in front of the camera doesn't mean

we don't exist. We are there. We're underemployed. JEFFREY BROWN: Their own film, says Newnham,

aims to open a window for a new audience. NICOLE NEWNHAM: The goal that Jim and I held

dear throughout the entire filmmaking process was that we could shift people's view of disability

from a medical model or a charity model to a rights-based model, and that people could

see the exciting kind of new perspective of coming to stories from a disabled point of

view. MAN: When we were there, there was no outside world. JEFFREY BROWN: "Crip Camp"

vies for an Oscar for best documentary this Sunday. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey

Brown.