Crip Camp

“Not Just ‘About’ Disability”

Elizabeth Ellcessor (University of Virginia)

Early in Crip Camp, a former counselor at the titular Camp Jened reflects that when campers arrived, he was “not prepared for the visual of so many disabled people at one time.” This observation, in part, speaks to the context of the 1970s, in which many disabled people were institutionalized or isolated in homes, kept out of public life by inaccessibility and discrimination. Yet, it may also reflect the experiences of nondisabled audiences upon viewing Crip Camp, a film dominated by disabled bodies and perspectives released into a media environment in which the Ruderman Foundation reports that only 20% of the small number of disabled roles are played by disabled actors. Thus, one of the most remarkable things about Crip Camp is how it refuses to cater to the stares or curiosity of a nondisabled audience. Instead, Crip Camp is not only about but also for disabled people. The film presents a shared disabled perspective through its formal elements, its narration, and its extratextual materials. Ultimately, the audience is invited to align themselves with this community and its goals and legacies.

Many critics have praised the film’s use of archival film, taken by the People’s Video Theater in the early 1970s. The footage of Camp Jened allows disabled teenagers to appear as teenagers—dating, gossiping, playing music, rebelling against authorities. This, in itself, is a more complex portrayal than is commonly seen in fictional representations of disability or in the kinds of tragedy or inspiration porn that often characterize news media reports featuring disability. But Crip Camp’s intervention is not limited to these archival materials; formal choices also center and validate disabled perspectives. One small but powerful example recurs in archival footage shot by co-director Jim LeBrecht: a wheelchair user, LeBrecht’s footage shows his progress up ramps at Camp Jened and is shot from his height rather than a normative eye level. These moments are not explicitly discussed by the film, but they are powerful for the work they do in literally shifting viewers’ perspectives.

A shot from archival footage in which LeBrecht and the camera move up a ramp to the girls’ dorm.

A second example of formal choices that center a disabled perspective comes in the treatment of speech disabilities throughout the film. Individuals whose speech is slowed or slurred are filmed and edited in much the same way as others. Their talking head segments are not cut short or narrated over; they are given time to speak and open captions accompany them, fading in and out in sync with their speech. These are enhanced captions, integral to the scene in which they appear, and in their very difference from typical captions, they demonstrate the care taken with both respecting the speakers and prioritizing access considerations.

Denise Sherer Jacobson (left), a dark-haired young woman in a wheelchair, seen in archival footage with open captions of her contemporary spoken narration appearing on the right of the screen.

Another means through which Crip Camp builds and invites audiences into a disabled perspective is evident in its narration. Its story is told by the campers and counselors themselves, either through the footage of Jened and later protests and news reports, or through present-day interviews. In short, the film lacks a (nondisabled) voice of authority. There is no all-knowing narrator, and there are also no figures of authority who might typically “explain” disability, history, or both. There are no doctors, no parents, no professors, no “experts.” Even historical figures, such as Richard Nixon or Geraldo Rivera, are seen briefly and heard even less. The education being provided about disabled youth in the 20th century, about the disability rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and about current disability issues is being offered by those who experienced it.

The second half of Crip Camp is unapologetically didactic, telling the story of the 504 Protests and related activist efforts through the experiences of people that the audience met at Camp Jened. But this story is not, primarily, being told for nondisabled viewers. It is part of what Stacey Park Milbern called “crip ancestorship,” the choice to be connected to and honor those who came before, offering disabled viewers possibilities for new ancestors, and perhaps new selves.

Logo for Crip Camp: The Official Virtual Experience, an illustration of a green bus with wheelchair lift, raised fists extending from the windows, and the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us” painted on the side.

The story of Jened, and of 504, is one of finding disabled community and using that to create change in the world. To extend this message to the community, Crip Camp: The Official Virtual Experience—developed by Milbern, prior to her passing in spring 2020, and Andraéa LaVant—has offered weekly video meetings for approximately 8,000 people to hear from diverse disability activists. This transmedia experience discourages interpretation of the film as merely historical. The disability history of Crip Camp is used as a starting point from which to learn about and see oneself as part of disability history, community, culture, and activism in the present day. These meetings, focused on disability history, disability and sex, social media activism, and much more, explicitly invite viewers to take a step towards finding their own disability communities and political voices, carrying forward the legacy of Camp Jened.

“Ingroup-Outgroup Politics”

Catalin Brylla (Bournemouth University)

The rise in social awareness, activism, scholarly research and policy-making around disability issues, coupled with the democratization in media production and consumption, should provide ample scope for media to reduce its stigma. Yet, as Nicole Markotić argues, disability has never been as “disproportionately underrepresented at the same time as it has been excessively displayed,” and disabled filmmakers may be as susceptible to the pitfall of ableist stereotypes as well-meaning, abled filmmakers. One of the key questions in the debate around representation is whether disability as a psychological, social, or political phenomenon should be at the center of film narratives or not. For instance, BBC’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy promotes the factual, onscreen portrayal of disabled people whereby story or topic lines should be unrelated to the disability itself (e.g. Africa with Ade Adepitan (2019)). In contrast, Channel 4’s 360° Diversity Charter recommends that factual programs should portray disabled people in narratives explicitly focusing on disability-related themes (e.g. The Undateables (2012—)). Where does Crip Camp stand within this ambiguous discourse?

Judging from my subject position as a non-disabled academic who explores stereotypes and ingroup-outgroup dynamics in mainstream media, the film’s very start embodies this ambiguity: black-and-white archive shots show a film camera and a sound recorder being prepared before an interviewer in a wheelchair asks an interviewee, “Would you like to see handicapped people depicted as people?” to which the seemingly confused interviewee responds, “Excuse me?” This short colophon primes the viewer in several ways: firstly, it declares the context of a disability discourse, addressing the contentious issue of representation. Secondly, it expresses the film’s focus on historical events through the predominant use of archive footage. Thirdly, it reflexively asserts its mediated perspective (subjectivized by the following sequence that introduces co-director Jim LeBrecht). Less than a minute in length, this emblematic prelude presents a charged synthesis between personal and collective history, identity politics, and activism, which permeates the entire narrative.

Documentaries that depict stigmatized outgroups as a collective tend to focus on a concrete geographical, historical, or social context shared primarily by outgroup members, who often fight for, and ultimately appear to achieve, social acceptance. Such narratives are typically underlined by evocative music and the generation of primary emotions, such as joy, anger, and sadness, rendering them highly appealing to mainstream audiences. But, such narratives always bear the risk of perpetuating stereotypes of otherness (whether positive or negative). They are prone to reinforcing ingroup-outgroup boundaries by homogenizing and simplifying common experiences of on-screen outgroup members, placing these in direct contrast to experiences of the ingroup – non-disabled on-screen characters and viewers. Whilst Crip Camp does use all of the mentioned mainstream narrative elements to portray the outgroup, which explains its successful dissemination, it crucially avoids slipping into a ‘freak show’ that activates othering stereotypes in the ingroup viewer.

For instance, although the characters’ visible disabilities and common stories represent them as the “disabled,” saliently different to the “non-disabled,” this apparent social boundary is porous, as they also share a variety of regular, everyday human traits with the ingroup. In fact, the film’s plot effectively dedicates its first third to the less political, everyday life in the summer camp, including smoking, making music, having sex, messy dormitories, and a crabs infestation. On the other hand, the last two thirds shows the struggle towards the reinforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), culminating in the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (1990). This progression is not only chronological, but also identifies the camp as the seedbed for the activist movement. In addition, it serves to ease a non-disabled audience into the disability discourse by initially generating empathy and emotional engagement through ingroup-outgroup similarities, before it smoothly switches – as the summer camp ends – to the distinct political activism.

Another tactic to inhibit the collective homogenization of the outgroup is the use of individual stories from the characters’ own perspective. Although LeBrecht’s unique story constitutes the frame narrative, some secondary characters are also given time to develop their own subplots, such as Denise Jacobson who muses about her marriage and how contracting an STD ignited her desire to go to university to obtain an MA in Human Sexuality. Unfortunately, other featured characters, like key activist Judy Heumann, are rather sketchy and reduced to the political discourse. However, this is not surprising given the ambitious timeline and character constellations the film covers. This general lack in individual roundedness is compensated by a collective, intersectional roundness, manifested in the disability movement cross-pollinating with the civil rights, the hippie, and the anti-war movement. Outgroup homogeneity is also mitigated by mentioning stereotyped groups within the community itself, such as the “more normal-looking polios” vs. the “disabled-looking cerebral palsies.”

All in all, apart from recounting a highly experiential and thought-provoking story, the film does its best to circumvent disability stereotypes. Especially, the notorious supercrip trope is avoided by depicting its characters as regular human beings, who, although having extra-ordinary bodies (and minds), aim to live everyday life as ordinarily as possible from their perspective. It is the collective cause and course of events that is extra-ordinary, heroic and inspiring, not the individuals per se, and this is perhaps where other, well-meaning documentaries miserably fail by perpetuating otherness. To quote activist Stella Young’s attack on ‘inspiration porn’ in her 2014 TED Talk, “disabled people don’t do anything out of the ordinary, they just use their bodies to the best of their capacities…I am not your inspiration, thank you very much.”

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