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In 'Crip Camp,' a rare spotlight for disability rights

PARK CITY, Utah — It wasn't Judith Heumann's first standing ovation, but it might have been her loudest. Heumann, who had polio as a baby and uses a wheelchair, has for decades been one of the leading figures of the disability rights movement.

PARK CITY, Utah — It wasn't Judith Heumann's first standing ovation, but it might have been her loudest.

Heumann, who had polio as a baby and uses a wheelchair, has for decades been one of the leading figures of the disability rights movement. When the Brooklyn native, after graduating from college, was denied a teaching license by New York City's board of education because her wheelchair was declared a fire hazard, she sued and won. In 1977, when the first federal civil rights legislation for disabled people stalled, she led a historic 28-day-long sit-in. The victory paved the way for 1990's Americans With Disabilities Act.

Her story is one of several central to “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolutionary," a rousing and rare look at the disability rights movement. It traces the movement's origins to an upstate New York summer camp for teens with disabilities that was run in 1970s with much of the free spirit of nearby Woodstock. The film, the second backed by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions following the Oscar-winning “American Factory,” hits Netflix on Wednesday.

For camp attendees who came with polio, cerebral palsy and other disabilities, Jened was a utopia of acceptance and community. And it helped spark a movement. When its campers returned to their homes, they were emboldened to demand to be treated like human beings. Heumann went there. So did Jim LeBrecht, co-director of “Crip Camp." He was born with spina bifida.

When Heumman was introduced after the premiere of “Crip Camp” at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the response was deafening. “It was as loud as a jet airplane taking off,” LeBrecht recalled, groggy but beaming the morning after the film’s premiere.

The Sundance debut for “Crip Camp” was the kind of festival reception filmmakers dream of. It was hailed as a jubilant crowd-pleaser, a likely Oscar contender, and most importantly, a seldom-seen and overdue big-screen moment for people with disabilities. The makers of “Crip Camp” believe the film can be its own galvanizing moment.

“I hope this film will ignite other stories,” said Heumann, who joined LeBrecht and his fellow director, Nicole Newnham, for an interview in Park City, Utah, in January. “These stories are out there.”

A lot has changed in just two months. “Crip Camp” will be released while much of the nation is hunkered down at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. The filmmakers had a wide range of activities planned around the film's release, many of which have had to be adapted or curtailed due to the pandemic.

Instead, the filmmakers are striving, from the confines of their Bay area homes, to turn planned community screenings virtual and develop educational materials for schools. But “Crip Camp” is also, in a way, suited to the times as a reprieve for housebound viewers.

“It’s hopeful and joyous. It’s a look at how a group of people can come together and effect monumental change. As opposed to 24-hours of coronavirus, this is a moment to go back to camp," LeBrecht said in a recent interview by phone. “I think that people are going to really want to watch it just because it’s a positive story at a time where it’s tough for all of us.”

“You always hear in these times about a need for happy warriors,” added Newnham. “I feel like that’s what Jim and his friends are.”

“Crip Camp” has a specific starting point but it unfolds as a broader chronicle of a decades-long fight for civil rights — one that has received less attention than other 20th century struggles for equity. At Sundance, the filmmakers heard everywhere: “I never realized.” During the festival, Heummann sent Newnham a text message: “Enjoy walking through the crowds of people whom you have awakened!”

By any metric, the stories of people with disabilities are among the least represented in film and television. Last year, USC Annenberg’s annual inequality report found that, of the 4,445 characters in the most popular movies of 2018, just 1.6% were shown with a disability. U.S. census figures estimate 27.2% of Americans have some form of disability.

A 2019 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that about half of U.S. households favour authentic portrayals of actors with disabilities. Yet Hollywood, where villains are still regularly signalled by deformity, has a long history of unfavourable, stereotyped or inauthentic depictions of disability.

“We’ve learned so much about people around us from film and television, and if what you’re getting is just purely stories about people having tragedies — in the case of ‘Million Dollar Baby’: ‘Please kill me. Please, please.’ — or the kind of super, overcoming story that we sometimes call the ‘super-crip’ story, neither of these people are relatable and neither are reflective of the community in general,” said LeBrecht, a Berkeley, California-based sound designer.

Heumann, LeBrecht and Newnham hope “Crip Camp” encourages conversations about how movies and media have fostered false impressions of people with disabilities.

“There needs to be a fundamental altering in what goes on in media,” said Heumann, who has written about disability representation for the Ford Foundation. “At Sundance, I’m in a room with hundreds and hundreds of progressives who pride themselves on being progressives, who pride themselves on supporting diversity. And the number of people who say — and it’s not the first time I’ve heard this — ‘We didn’t know.’”

“Crip Camp” has already effected some change. LeBrecht, having attended previous Sundance festivals, urged the festival to improve accessibility. He previously was unable to go into the festival’s filmmakers lounge because it didn’t have an elevator. Sundance recently announced that it would provide more resources for attendees with disabilities and program more movies featuring people with disabilities.

The changes need to go much deeper than accessibility, Heumman said. It’s about reprogramming how the non-disabled think of people with disabilities.

Due to theatres shuttering, “Crip Camp” will go without its planned limited theatrical release. Given its status as an Academy Awards contender, the documentary will be the first film to test how the film academy handles its usual rules requiring a theatrical release due to the virus. The academy last week said it was “evaluating all aspects of this uncertain landscape.”

"I can only imagine that the academy is going to come up with some revised rules for this but we don’t know what the status of that is at all," said LeBrecht.

But the crisis has given LeBrecht another reason to reconsider what “Crip Camp” might mean to people now. One statement said in the film — “We know that society wants us dead” — has been on his mind.

“How do we value people? Is it by productivity? Is how well they play the violin? What are our standards for valuing people?” said LeBrecht. “If anything, now is a good time for reflection on that.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at:

Jake Coyle, The Associated Press