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'It was like freedom:' How a camp for disabled children changed lives


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

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: 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: 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: 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.


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.

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