In partnership with On the Same Page, the Division of Arts & Humanities sponsored a student essay and video contest. We asked students to stream the documentary (available for free here, including a version with audio description and open captions), and invited them to respond to one of the following prompts:
Reflect on the film in a creative way to share its impact with people in your life. Why should they watch it?
Profile one of the Berkeley changemakers around disability studies and disability rights. The person you profile can be either in the film or a faculty or alum of Berkeley who has made an impact in the community.
Bring awareness to one of the disability rights outcomes that resulted from the work of the pioneers featured in the film.
The following three essays were chosen by Scott Saul, professor of English and committee member for this year's On the Same Page program.
Often, we measure our “fortunes” by others’ “misfortunes.” Society tends to view disabled people not as people, but as a reminder of our privilege and what we take for granted, a concept of self-interest that contributes to inequality. However, this focus shifts with the film Crip Camp (2020). The film offers a different perspective on disabled people, in which the lens turns solely toward them—allowing us to learn about their lives, experiences, and history.
On a patch of land in upstate New York, 70s folk rock cruises through the air, and summer love transpires as smiles are shared. The place is called Camp Jened—a summer camp for disabled people. Many attendees described it as a different world where they didn’t face inequality and labels. “At Camp Jened, you were just a kid.” Although the camp was its own world, its energy expanded beyond that.
When attendees of Camp Jened noticed the contrast between their treatment at the summer camp and the rest of the world, they knew a change needed to happen. Disabled people soon gathered in determination to advocate for Section 504, a piece of legislation that ensured disabled people have rights. Led by Judy Heumann, another movement started in support of the ADA. We see footage of demonstrations on streets, people inhabiting government buildings, and hunger strikes.
But, as Camp Jened attendee and activist Denise Jacobson said, “You can pass a law, but until you change society’s attitudes, the law won’t mean much.” Although the ADA was passed in 1990, inequality continues to linger. The root of inequality isn’t our differences. Rather, it’s our mindset—it’s how we react to the differences. Crip Camp has a significant role in impacting our perspective. Through this film, we can understand our differences rather than placing a certain value on them.
Why does our society praise similarities but condemn differences? A question that crossed my mind repeatedly when watching Newnham & LeBrecht's 2021 documentary Crip Camp. Throughout history, people have been categorized as “different” when they do not comply with the beliefs, physical image and attitudes society has established as “normal”. This eye-opening documentary presents this idea through the lives and experiences of individuals with disabilities and their fight for rights and equity known as the 504 movement. For these disabled teenagers, Camp Jened became their home, the only place where they could feel comfortable being themselves. One of the campers even called it a utopia, because the world outside was a synonym of isolation and harshness.
I have pigmentary mosaicism, a genetic condition that makes my skin look different than everyone else’s. Growing up, society made me believe being different was wrong. So, I completely understood James LeBrecht’s struggles with self-esteem due to his lack of bladder control, because of societal constructs. But my condition has made me experience what being different truly feels like, realizing it’s a superpower rather than an issue. We should collectively work on finding ways to make everyone find their place, and genuinely feel that they belong.
Everyone who has the opportunity should watch this movie, as it leads to reflections of ourselves and of the way our society works. As a woman in the documentary said, “You can pass a law but until you change society's attitudes, the law won’t mean much”. Watching this documentary, being impacted by it, and reflecting on what is going on around you is the first step towards this great change we all are part of.
"Crip Camp" rewinds the timeline back to the 1970s, to Camp Jened, to a group of people with disabilities. Collaging old video records and photographs, the documentary beautifully tells the stories, struggles, and strengths of the youngsters and captures the bonds they forged at Camp Jened. To many, this utopia is the catalyst that later inspires them to embark on a journey fighting for equal rights for those with disabilities. Unlike traditional hero’s journey stories, "Crip Camp” does not fall victim to the false positivity narrative with neat resolutions and happy endings. It is powerful in its unfiltered portrayal of the continuous, difficult fight of the people with disabilities within a broken society. Even with the extraordinary courage and determination of those who refuse to be silenced, who demand everyone’s rights to be respected, progress is made slow and hard. Though landmark legislatures have passed, the fight continues. Activists work endlessly to make sure that existing legislation do not get repealed and are effectively implemented. Though the documentary ends, the fight for rights does not. It leaves the audience wondering about the movement’s next steps, and their own possible role in supporting such a cause. It urges people to look beyond apparent stereotypes to recognize that what is actually impaired is society, not the people with disabilities. By unveiling the injustices faced by those with disabilities and by spotlighting their hardships in creating changes, “Crip Camp” is a reminder that every individual has a role to play in the ongoing fight for justice and equality by breaking the barriers of harmful stereotypes and nurturing a society where diversity is embraced.