Funky and free-spirited: How a 1970s summer camp started a disability revolution
Incoming UC Berkeley students watched Crip Camp, a documentary about a summer camp in New York's Catskill Mountains, as part of the program On the Same Page.
By Anne Brice
It was summertime in the early 1970s in New York City. Fifteen-year-old Jim LeBrecht boarded a school bus headed for the Catskill Mountains, home to Camp Jened, a summer camp for people with disabilities. As the bus approached the camp, he peered out the window at the warm and raucous group below.
"I wasn't exactly sure who was a camper and who was a counselor," he said. "I think that's really indicative of one of the many things that made that camp special."
Over several years, the camp changed him in profound ways.
"I, for the first time, understood that I didnt need to be embarrassed about being disabled, that I could have pride in who I was," he said. "And that it was possible to fight back against the system that was keeping us down."
Nearly five decades later, in 2020, LeBrecht and filmmaker Nicole Newnham released on Netflix the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,about Camp Jened and the activism it inspired.
"What did we used to say, it was like Wet Hot American Summermeets The Times of Harvey Milk?" said Newnham. "Its an activist history story. Its the origin story of a political and identity-based community, the disability community. But its also a coming-of-age story and a joyous sort of celebration of youth and disability culture coming together."
All incoming undergraduate students at UC Berkeley watched Crip Campover the summer as part of On the Same Page, a program of the College of Letters and Science.
"We had a couple of goals with our film," said LeBrecht. "One of them was to reframe what disability meant to people with and without disabilities. We also wanted to start conversations.I hope that this plants a seed within all of these students that they do talk, they do think differently, and that this is something they hold for the rest of their lives that will make the world a better place."
Newnham and LeBrecht will be in conversation on Sept. 14 in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more on On the Same Page website.
Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode 113: Funky and free-spirited: How a 1970s summer camp started a disability revolution.
Jim LeBrecht: I, for the first time, understood that I didn't need to be embarrassed about being disabled, that I could have pride in who I was. And that it was possible to fight back against the system that was keeping us down.
[Music: "Kilkerrin" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Narration: This is Berkeley Voices. Im Anne Brice.
Today, we're sharing an interview with Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. Together, they wrote, directed and produced the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, about a free-spirited 1970s summer camp for people with disabilities set in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
Crip Camp premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and was released in March of that year on Netflix. It went on to be nominated for an Academy Award.
At UC Berkeley, all first-year and transfer students watched Crip Camp over the summer, so they'd have something in common to talk about throughout the school year, in classes and at events designed to explore the films themes. It's part of On the Same Page, a program of the College of Letters and Science.
Jim LeBrecht: Hi, I am Jim LeBrecht. I am the co-director, co-producer with Nicole Newnham of the documentary Crip Camp. And I have been working a lot in the last number of years as an activist to improve accessibility for people with disabilities in the entertainment business.
Nicole Newnham: And Im Nicole Newnham. I'm an independent documentary film director, now for over 25 years, and longtime colleague of Jim LeBrecht's and his partner-in-crime in directing Crip Camp.
Anne Brice: Great. Your documentary came out in 2020, so about three years ago now. And for people who haven't seen it yet, can you give an overview of what it's about?
Jim LeBrecht: Well, the film kind of starts at a summer camp for people with disabilities that I went to in the very early 1970s, and it traces that group of people that came together there and how that community and that environment led to a lot of us getting involved with the disability rights movement that was happening that led, ultimately, to the passage of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). But there's a lot more to the story than that.
Nicole Newnham: Yeah. I mean, Jim, what did you used to say, or we used to say, it was like Wet Hot American Summer meets The Times of Harvey Milk? It's an activist history story. It's the origin story of a political community, a political and identity-based community, the disability community. But it's also a coming-of-age story and a joyous sort of celebration of youth and disability culture coming together.
Audio from Crip Camp:
Camp director Larry Allison: Jened was an opportunity to try to do some different kinds of things. When the camp started back in the '50s, it was the traditional kind of camp program. As it evolved into the '60s and '70s, what we tried to do is provide the kind of environment where teenagers could be teenagers without all the stereotypes and the labels. That was a byproduct of the times, of social experimentation.
Anne Brice: When you got there, what was it like for you? And why did you decide to go?
Jim LeBrecht: Well, I decided to go there because in the summer of '69, I was at another summer camp that I had been going to for a number of years, but a bunch of Jened campers were there because there was no camp that summer. Their dining hall had burned down during the wintertime.
And I'm hearing about this camp where it's, like, you know, you're in bunks, and the counselors sleep in the bunks, and theres music going, and literally, there was this, like, (rumor that) you might smoke dope with the counselors.
And so this other camp was a very kind of straight camp. There was a little bit of infantilizing. And so at the end of that summer, I said to my dad, "I've heard about this other camp. I want to go to Camp Jened next year."
My experience of going there was just, it felt like a whole other world, just in the number of people with disabilities that were counselors and staff, and the freedom that I felt there. And, you know, I mentioned this in the film, like when I was looking out the window of the bus when we arrived, I wasn't exactly sure who was a camper and who was a counselor. And I think that's really indicative of one of the many things that made that camp special.
Narration: For a few days in 1971, a film crew from the People's Video Theater came through the camp. They had these new video cameras that could play back footage to people they were videotaping. The filmmakers hoped it would be empowering for people to see themselves on video in real time.
Audio from Crip Camp:
Young Judy Heumann: There are some people here who have been filming. I told them that I would like them to please address us as a group, so they can tell us their ideas and we can ask any questions that we wanted to.
Filmmaker: We're People's Video Theater. That's Ken Marsh. I'm Howie Gutstadt. And that's Ben Levine over there. And we have been working with this equipment, which is half-inch videotape, which is simply closest to television. Whatever, actually, you really want to say about yourselves, let us know. Let's have a lot of interaction.
Jim LeBrecht: We had no idea that this footage still existed. I had remembered that a group of videographers had come to the camp in the summer of '71 and had actually given me the camera, this luggable video system to do a tour of the camp.
Audio from Crip Camp:
Young Jim LeBrecht: Here is Girls 1, a place for fun and frolic. There's one of the campers, Valerie Valvona.
Valerie Valvona: Jimmy! Is this necessary? I mean, is this important? (Laughs)
Jim LeBrecht: But I remembered that the word people was in the name of the group. But thats about as far as my memory went.
Narration: So Nicole set out to find the footage.
Nicole Newnham: I was determined because I thought, if that footage exists, it's like the Holy Grail.
Narration: After months of searching, she found a collection of these old videomaker magazines that had been digitized. And at the very back of one magazine, there was an ad selling some footage from Camp Jened.
Nicole Newnham: And so then we had the name of the People's Video Theater, and then we could find out who were those members. And slowly we worked our way to a guy who was on the board of a radical bookstore in San Francisco, who was literally just across the bridge from us and had all the footage in his basement.
So we were able to make an arrangement with them, and they were very supportive of our work. And we got hours of this footage on a hard drive delivered to Jim's office. And it was like a trip back in time.
Anne Brice: Wow. What was it like for you, Jim, seeing the footage after all of those years?
Jim LeBrecht: Well, probably needless to say, it was really emotional and incredibly exciting. And, you know, for me and so many other people, summer camp was a real seminal moment in my life. And all of a sudden I'm seeing all these people that at that time it was like 45 years later.
Audio of Crip Camp:
Campers play guitar and sing: What a long, strange trip it's been.
Anne Brice: In the film, there are so many moments that are fun and honest and just really, I think, really educational for a lot of people. And one that, because I've seen it a few times since it came out, but that always comes into my mind is the crabs outbreak, because it's just so funny and it's awesome how everyone thinks it's so funny. (Laughs)
Audio from Crip Camp:
(Fade up to laughter)
Nanci DAngelo: You want me to tell you what happened?
Nanci DAngelo: Well, two people got crabs, and they're spreading. They form in the human body in there, and I don't know, and they, um, they multiply!
Young Judy Heumann: In the beginning, when we found out what was going on, we were kind of all very hyper about it. And who the fuck knew what crabs were, or lice, or anything?
Young Jim LeBrecht: I wanna go over there. (Laughs)
Interviewer: Whats over there?
Young Jim LeBrecht: My girl. (Laughs)
Interviewer: Have you seen her today?
Young Jim LeBrecht: Just from over here.
Interviewer: Have you talked to her?
Young Jim LeBrecht: Not really. Just from across here.
Man: We're all quarantined.
Young Jim LeBrecht: It's our first-week anniversary today.
Interviewer: It's your first-week anniversary, and you can't even talk to her.
Young Jim LeBrecht: Thats right.
Audio from Crip Camp:
Videographer: Are you ready?
Young Jim LeBrecht: All right. We're here now. We're going to talk about parents. You know, and what kind of how they bug us, or how you lie to them, whatever it is. Maybe we should start off with overprotectiveness, which I really hate. Does anyone want to start it up?
Camper: My parents are great. But sometimes I hate them because they're too great, and they're too protective of me. And things that I want to do and I would love to do, they say, "No, you cant do it. You're handicapped." And they keep reminding me of the fact that I'm in a chair. And they don't seem to realize that theres so much I could do.
Audio from Crip Camp:
Young Jim LeBrecht: I depend on my mother for some things, and so I can't really fight her as hard as I wish I could.
Videographer: What kind of things do you depend on her for?
Young Jim LeBrecht: Well, some of the things that everybody else depends on their parents for, like laundry and stuff. But she's the person who orders special supplies when I need it and stuff. And if I'm in a position where I'm unable to do something, she's gonna have to do it. And so if you keep on bugging your mother, fighting her constantly, then there's going to be a time when she's very reluctant.
Jim LeBrecht: That was one of the things that was always kind of stunning to me, about looking at their interaction with us, was that they gave us agency. They treated us like teenagers and young adults. There was no, like, "Oh, let's go to the camp director and ask him how he takes care of these poor, unfortunate people."
I mean, this was kind of part of the ethos of the time. You know, people were completely looking at the paradigms of how we dealt with each other from different communities, giving respect and being inquisitive. And I mean, it was just wonderful.
Narration: During the discussion, a camper named Nancy Rosenblum, who has disability affected speech, shares her thoughts with the group about how everyone wants to be alone sometimes, but that she has been denied the right to privacy.
It's difficult for many of the campers to understand what she's saying, so another camper translates for her to the group.
Nicole Newnham: When Jim and I saw that, when we were first going through the raw footage, we said, you know, sort of, "Stop the presses. That's the center of the whole movie."
And we kind of developed this idea that the first act should build to that moment, because at that moment, you really do see how the community functions, and that it's strong. And you can believe that something that's that powerful. Because I don't think most of us have ever experienced that, like most of us haven't been in a community of people of varying abilities where everyone is so patient and so open and so holding everybody's perspective.
So we felt it would be special for people. And we thought, "If we can bring people up to that moment so that they feel that, too, then there's kind of nothing we can't do."
But then, you know, in showing some of that footage to people early on, just raw, before we had edited the film together, some people would say, "You can't show that. It's going to be too hard for people to watch, and they won't sit through it, and they'll feel too uncomfortable."
But, you know, it's the kind of scene where it's, like ... first off, we had to do a lot of work to get to the point where people would hang in there with it and wouldn't feel that way about it. But also, it's the kind of scene that, it's actually an experience, right? Like, you change in watching the scene. You're not watching something happen; you're actually a part of something. And you start the scene thinking one thing and you end the scene seeing things in a completely different way. That's probably the thing we're the most proud about, about how the film turned out, is that I think it genuinely shifts the lens through which people look at disability.
It's always so, it chokes me up, actually, it's always so amazing to me to think that Nancy Rosenblum, who died in the 1980s, actually did that. She took the risk to say those things on camera so long ago. And then her contribution is now changing the lives of so many people through the experience that people have of listening to her talk in the film. For me, it's the most powerful thing in the film.
[Music: "10c Coffee" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Anne Brice: At the end of 1971, when you left Camp Jened, Jim, how did you feel different? Did the change happen kind of every year as you went? And what did that feel like for you?
Jim LeBrecht: Well, meeting Judy Heumann in the summer of '71 really set me on a course that I, for the first time, understood disability, or I understood that I didn't need to be embarrassed about being disabled, that I could have pride in who I was. And that it was possible to fight back against the system that was keeping us down because she had prevailed in her lawsuit to get a teaching position.
Over the course of these summers, it reinforced these ideas. I wound up joining Disabled in Action, which is a group that she helped co-found in New York. What I learned there just really laid a foundation that I was able to build upon.
Narration: After camp, Judy went on to become a leading activist for disability rights and independent living, and spent her life fighting for inclusion.
After Camp Jened, Crip Camp takes viewers out of the camp bubble and follows the lives of some of the campers.
Nicole Newnham: When we come out of the camp, we have a little bridge where Jim talks about what it was like to leave camp and how painful that was and how painful it was to kind of remind yourself that you're back in a world that is imposing limitations on you.
Audio from Crip Camp:
Jim LeBrecht: At camp, I was in a whole other world. My first girlfriend, and I'm popular, and I'm going back to this world in which it's hard to get around. Sometimes I would just, like, go home after high school and go to bed for a few hours and just away from the world. I have friends, but I'm the only person with a disability. I had to try to adapt. I had to try to fit into this world that wasn't built for me. It never dawned on me that the world was ever going to change.
Narration: In 1972, Judy became a founding member of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley.
Audio from Crip Camp:
Judy Heumann: I want to see a feisty group of disabled people all around the world. People who will not accept "No" without asking "Why?" That's really what's so critical about CIL is that it's not a card that you get handed at the door, but it is kind of a demand that is expected of people in this community. And that is, if you don't respect yourself, and if you don't demand what you believe in for yourself, you're not going to get it."
Narration: And she and other activists, some of whom went to Camp Jened, went on to organize countless protests, which led to legislation being passed, including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Its a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities.
There's one protest in the film, a 26-day sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco in 1977, that shows just how committed people were to fighting for disability rights.
Audio from Crip Camp:
News announcer: Handicapped citizens demonstrated health education and welfare today. They accuse Secretary Califano of weakening and delaying regulations to implement a 1973 law to protect the rights of the handicapped.
Protesters: (Clapping and singing) Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, for the Union makes us strong.
Judy Heumann (Footage from protest): This is just for tonight. How many people in the room cannot sleep on the floor? (Footage from interview): The Bay Area was the most well-organized. We had the expertise to not only have demonstrations, but to sustain them.
Jim LeBrecht: I'm amazed at how many people stayed and what these people had to endure. Not having a backup ventilator. Not having your usual personal care attendant. Not having access to catheters. It's hard enough for me to take care of my body. Here we're talking quadriplegics who can't turn themselves in the middle of the night to prevent body sores. And to be sleeping on the floor? I mean, that's a recipe for disaster.
Narration: After one of the longest occupations of a federal building in history, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was finally implemented. It mandated that no one with a disability could be excluded or discriminated against in a program or activity that was receiving federal funding.
[Music: "Rapids" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Jim LeBrecht: Disability cuts across all strata of society. And people from Camp Jened and this movement we're going to the early gay pride parades. They were involved in many other communities, including some very important people who were inside, who were members of the Black Panther Party.
And because we were doing what, you know, that we were a part of these communities and trying to support these other communities, when the time came for us to need help, people showed up.
Nicole Newnham: The beauty of this protest is that it was so effective and so powerful.
And a beautiful thing that happened when the film came out, which was the summer of 2020, is that it was a summer of a lot of organizing and activism and street protests. And we hadn't really known that that was going to be true. But what we found is that people were actually playing the film outside at encampments and gatherings in Portland and Seattle.
The shocking thing, of course, in terms of how history played out and because of, frankly, bigotry, is that people didn't remember that it had even happened. So people were finding out about it for the first time.
But they were not just finding out about any old protest. They were finding out about one of the greatest, most successful pieces of activism in American history, with the most far-reaching impact.
And so we wanted to really inspire people and give them a blueprint and a roadmap for how change can happen. And it turned out that it landed at a period of our history when that had a lot of value.
Narration: Crip Camp had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, where it won the Audience Award. It didn't open in theaters because of COVID restrictions, and instead was released on Netflix in March of that year. It went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Nicole Newnham: We tried to approach the filmmaking process as an opportunity to create change wherever we could. And I think that we ended up being able to make a lot more change that we would have ever anticipated a lot of it through Jim's incredible activism. Everything from having a ramp up to the stage at the Sundance Award ceremony for the first time and getting an elevator into the filmmakers' lounge.
And we brought a whole cohort of disabled colleagues to the Oscars. And that was really kind of a breakthrough moment, in terms of images that would let young filmmakers from all over the world who might be disabled know that the Oscars was a place that they could be a part of, too, or should be a part of, too.
I have always believed, obviously, because I do this, in the power of a narrative and a well-told story to make change. But I think this has exceeded my expectations for how much that could happen. I feel like people wanted it. They were ready for that paradigm shift. People have responded so beautifully to it.
It's funny, because I said something similar to Judy Heumann, and I remember she said to me, "No, thats not true." She said, "They're just afraid that disabled people are going to sue them." (Laughs)
Jim LeBrecht: (Laughs)
Nicole Newnham: And I think thats also true, right?
[Music: "A Little Powder" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Anne Brice: I was wondering, Jim, if you could maybe talk a little bit about your relationship with Judy Heumann throughout the years?
Jim LeBrecht: Yeah. She passed a few months ago this spring. One of the wonderful things about our film was it really connected me and Nicole but really connected (us) on a very, very close level, that we wound up talking a few times a month.
My world, before Nicole and I embarked on this film, was really just about my sound work as a mixer and sound designer for film. And I had a small business, and I wasn't that politically active. But that part of my life really shifted. I sold my business, and I've still continued to work a little bit in sound. But this has really become my main focus of my life.
And I could call Judy and say, "I need to, like, check something with you," or "Talk to me about this," or "How do we approach that?"
And so I've lost a mentor, I've lost a friend and someone who always set an example for me. I mean, it's just, you know, it wasn't like she was my mother or anything like that, but it's like, you know, for everybody, she cared about them. And so losing that love has been really tough.
But our relationship did go both ways. One of the interviews that never made it into our film was one that we did with me and Judy at Berkeley Rep, just in the seating section one day. And I told her that I had real regrets, that I felt like I kind of left the movement because I was working so hard in the theater and really trying to build a career.
And she said, "Jimmy," she always called me Jimmy, "you never left. We all had our eyes on you. You were doing what the movement was about. You had a job and a life outside of disability activism." And that's just indicative of our relationship and the perspective she gave me. And I feel like I want to do the best to carry on her work.
Nicole Newnham: I always think about Judy's insistence that you be called Jimmy. Like, we would be in a meeting with, like, you know, representatives from President Obama's production company, and I would call Jim Jim, and she would correct them and say, "Jimmy." (Laughs)
But, you know, we put that scene in the beginning of the film, where she is in school and she meets Neil Jacobson and Nancy Rosenblum, who we were speaking about earlier. And she creates, like, a fierce, amazing, loving community with them. That was completely her orientation.
And if you were lucky enough to get caught up in working with her, which everyone who knew her and loved her did get caught up in working with her because you kind of couldn't not, then you were a part of that fiercely held community.
She had three phones going sometimes and she was just as connected to the guy she was buying meat from at the butcher store while she was talking to you as the neighbor that walked by that knew her, and they had a kid, and she loved the kid, and she's asking, "How is the kid growing?" And it was seemingly endless, her capacity to hold tight to people and really see them and really appreciate them and love them. So, yeah, I mean, we all, it's a huge loss.
[Music: "A Little Powder" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Jim LeBrecht: I was just observing as we were making our film, Nicole, I felt like she treated you so much like me. She really cared about you.
Nicole Newnham: Yeah, she did. And Howard. She loved our team. The thing that makes me the happiest about the process is that one time we were driving back after we had filmed some footage in her old neighborhood in Brooklyn, and we were driving back and she said, "You know what I like about this project? I like that we're all doing it together."
Anne Brice: For On the Same Page, all incoming students at UC Berkeley have watched or will watch Crip Camp. And I'm wondering what you hope they will feel from it, take away from it?
Jim LeBrecht: We had a couple of goals with our film. One of them was to reframe what disability meant to people with and without disabilities. We also wanted to start conversations. And there have been thousands and thousands of conversations that have been started. And, speaking for myself, I hope that this plants a seed within all of these students that they do talk, they do think differently, and that this is something they hold for the rest of their lives that will make the world a better place.
Nicole Newnham: Yeah, I feel the same. I mean, I feel like college, in a way, is like camp.
Jim LeBrecht: (Laughs)
Nicole Newnham: I mean, it's young people coming together, learning how to relate to each other across difference, dreaming of ways the world can be better, figuring out ways to activate on that and actualize that.
So I'm very excited to think what a college class who all saw this film, you know, how it might shift their perspective around how they relate with each other, how they work to create inclusive community and how they might think about allyship and organizing and coming together to make the world a better place. And also how they might, hopefully, forever see disability as an integral part of that.
Jim helped to start an organization around inclusion of disabilities in media called 1in4, and it's called that because one in four people have a disability. So that means one in four students in the incoming class at Berkeley do, too. So I don't know if there's ever been a disability-specific theme for this, but if not, it's really important and great that it is and it's going to mean a lot to so many people.
But it's a huge honor for us. We're, we're completely thrilled by it. You know, it doesn't even quite seem like it could be real. It's really fantastic.
[Music: "Tripoli" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Jim LeBrecht: Who needs an Academy Award? Especially in our hometown. Yeah, it's a wonderful honor.
Nicole Newnham: We wanted the film to make everyone want to hold this as a great American story. When you think about Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, you feel proud that that story is a part of the story of America, you know? And we wanted people to feel that way about this story, too. And for people coming to Berkeley and living in Berkeley and being a part of that kind of continuous history of disability community.
I would constantly tell people who lived in Berkeley that I was working on this film, and they would say to me, "Oh, I always noticed there were a lot of people zooming around in wheelchairs around here, but I never knew why." (Laughs) And it's crazy that such a seminal, important thing played out here. And even the people here don't really know about it.
But certainly for people who are coming in and becoming a part of that community and history and the continuity of that story, as students at UC Berkeley, it should be something that they know.
Narration: A lot has changed in the decades since the disability rights movement began and the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. At Berkeley today, there's a disabled students program, a disability lab, a disability community cultural center and a disability studies minor, among other accessibility projects and offices.
But, Jim says, there are still so many barriers that exist.
Jim LeBrecht: The struggles today are as life and death as they were back in 1977. Those people put their bodies on the line because they felt like, "If we don't do it now, when? We'll never have this leverage again." But yet, this was truly putting your life on the line for your own survival.
And today, the work that people are doing is about survival. It's about human rights. It's about not being left out and (being able) to enjoy the freedoms that for many other people, they just take for granted. And there's no defendable reason for not enabling us to be full members of society.
[Music: "Country Butter" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Jim LeBrecht: People were surprised at the joy and humor in our film. And I've become hyper- focused on the concept of joy, and that if you take something away from this that's important, among all the other things we've been talking about, is that you find the joy in what you are doing.
Narration: Although Camp Jened shut down because of financial hardship, first in 1977 and again in 2009 after it had reopened years later, its spirit lives on in Crip Camp and all those who experience it.
On Sept. 14, there will be a screening of Crip Camp, followed by a conversation with Nicole and Jim, in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The discussion will be moderated by anthropology professor Karen Nakamura, who leads the campus's Disability Lab. The event is free and open to the public and registration is encouraged. While the film screening will be in-person only, the conversation will be available in-person and livestreamed on YouTube. Learn more about the event at onthesamepage.berkeley.edu.
I'm Anne Brice, and this is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley. You can follow us wherever you get your podcasts. We also have another show, Berkeley Talks, which features lectures and conversations at Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.