Review: Summer camp group changes world in rousing 'Crip Camp'

Netflix documentary tells story of an upstate New York summer camp for the disabled which wound up igniting massive change

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

What started as a summer camp for teens with disabilities became the match that sparked a revolution in "Crip Camp," a lively, inspiring story of the ways simple feelings of inclusion can lead to empowerment and societal change.  

In the early 1950s in the Catskills, roughly three hours north of Manhattan, a summer camp was established for teenagers living with spina bifida, blindness, cerebral palsy, paraplegia and other ailments.

An image from "Crip Camp."

The camp, dubbed Camp Jened, was run by hippies and acted as a leveling ground of sorts, where campers were all on the same page, and as a result felt a great sense of community and togetherness, the exact things they didn't feel in their everyday lives.

Attendees described it as a "utopia," and they'd wait all year to return to see their friends, smoke pot, make out and leave the outside world behind. Just like any other camp.

Except it was not like any other camp. Years later, a significant number of Camp Jened alumni were involved in a protest at San Francisco's Department of Health, Education and Welfare building, where they used that same feeling of togetherness to stage a 25-day sit-in where they fought for — and won — their rights. That victory led to the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act which, in essence, changed their world. And it all started at summer camp. 

Filmmakers James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham essentially split the doc in half, first focusing on the camp itself and showing the kids in their element, and shifting to politics and protests in the second half. The approach allows for a greater understanding of the campers' situations and the freedom that Camp Jened afforded them, which gives the later scenes a bigger emotional weight.

"Crip Camp" shows change can come from anyone, anywhere at anytime. It's a lesson that should always be taken to heart but rings especially true now.


'Crip Camp'


Rated R: for some language including sexual references

Running time: 107 mins