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‘Crip Camp’ recalls a place where the disabled learned songs, games and empowerment

Netflix documentary weaves footage from the Catskills camp’s ’70s heyday with current updates on the campers.

Campers clown around at Camp Jened in an archival photo seen in “Crip Camp.”
Netflix

This is the dawn of a nationwide movement fueled by the passion and rebellious spirit of a young generation.

As we hear protest anthems such as “Freedom” by Richie Havens and “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane, long-haired hippie types let their freaks flag fly at a summer gathering in the Catskills.

For the first time in their lives, they are absolutely free to be themselves among their kindred spirits. They have sing-alongs. They party. They talk about how their parents don’t understand them. There’s so much free love, it results in an outbreak of crabs.

Woodstock? No, that had taken place a couple of years earlier, just down the road. We’re talking about Crip Camp, baby.

The nomination-worthy documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” tells the remarkable and amazing story of Camp Jened, a summer haven for disabled teens who reveled and thrived in an environment where they didn’t feel ostracized or misunderstood, didn’t feel the prying eyes of strangers every minute, didn’t feel unwelcome.

“I loved my life, but I didn’t see anyone like me in it,” says Jim LeBrecht, a former camper with spina bifida who co-directs the film Nicole Newnham.

LeBrecht and most of the other camp alums featured in the doc grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when the nation wasn’t equipped — physically, intellectually or ethically — for equal treatment of the disabled.

“In the middle of the first grade, I was allowed to enter public school on a trial basis,” recalls LeBrecht. “At the same time, so many kids like me were being sent to institutions.”

A group called the People’s Video Theater filmed extensively at the camp from 1971 to 1973, resulting in a treasure trove of archival footage, from fly-on-the-wall observations to conversations with the campers — some of whom are featured in interviews decades later as they look back on their experiences.

We see footage of campers playing baseball games, swimming, participating in a group sing-along of “Truckin’ ” by the Grateful Dead — and hooking up.

“The first year [of camp], I got a whole lesson in how to kiss,” recalls one camper. “[It was] one of the best physical therapy sessions I ever had!”

Says former counselor Lionel Je’ Woodyard, “You wouldn’t be picked to be on a team back home … here, you had to go up to bat.”

Woodyard, an African-American from Mobile, Alabama, also recalls noting similarities to how blacks were treated in the South and how the disabled were treated.

In another insightful vignette, a camper voices a sentiment held by many of the teens when talking about how her well-meaning parents’ attempts to shelter her can be smothering.

“My parents are great,” she says, “but sometimes I hate them because they’re TOO great and too protective of me. … They keep reminding me of the fact I’m in a chair.”

At about the halfway point, “Crip Camp” segues from being a snapshot of a cool getaway for disabled teens to a bigger-picture chronicle of the birth of a movement.

Jim LeBrecht (left), a former Camp Jened camper and one of the directors of “Crip Camp,” appears with co-director Nicole Newnham (center) and former camp counselor Judy Heumann at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Judy Heumann, who was in a wheelchair her whole life as a result of having polio at 18 months, was a camp counselor and one of several Camp Jened alums to become a prominent voice in the fight for rights for the disabled. (A group of the campers settled together in Berkeley, California, in the mid-1970s.)

Heumann sued the city of New York after she was denied a teacher’s license, and was among the leaders of 504 Sit-in of 1977, in which people with disabilities occupied federal buildings to fight for the government to actually enact regulations guaranteed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (At the San Francisco sit-in, the Black Panthers regularly brought hot meals to the protesters.)

Barack and Michelle Obama are among the executive producers of “Crip Camp.” This marks their second such credit, on the heels of the Oscar-winning documentary “American Factory.” They’re two for two.

Directors LeBrecht and Newnham do a nimble job of threading the stories of a number of campers into a compelling narrative, deftly moving back and forth from the newsreel-style footage from the 1970s and the interviews and life updates on the campers many decades later. Thanks in no small part to efforts by many a “Crip Camp” alum, we saw the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

As Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” plays on the soundtrack, a handful of former campers return to the site of their summers of love. (The camp was closed down in 1977 due to financial difficulties.) There’s nothing there now — nothing but beautiful memories.

Chicago Media Project hosts an online Q&A with directors Newnham and LeBrecht at 8 p.m. Wednesday. To RSVP, go to www.chicagomediaproject.org/crip-camp-screening