Disability rights documentary 'Crip Camp' by Oakland producers up for Oscar

ABC7 News reporter David Louie digs into the archives to expand on the documentary and to put perspective on a pivotal sit-in that he covered in the 1970s.
OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- An overlooked chapter in the history of the disability rights movement takes center stage at the Oscars on ABC this Sunday. Two producer-directors from Oakland are nominated for their documentary called "Crip Camp." It captures how a summer camp fostered activism in which the Bay Area played a pivotal role.

"Crip Camp" captures the summer of 1971 at Camp Jened in upstate New York, a special place where young people with disabilities could be themselves.

These are the words of former camper Denise Sherer Jacobson. "When we were there, there was no outside world," she said.

Jim LeBrecht was 15 years old then. He was born with spina bifida. He was given a camera by a visiting group of filmmakers to capture their experiences. Although that was a half-century ago, LeBrecht thought it had value to put in perspective how the disabilities movement evolved. Collaborating with producer Nicole Newnham, both Oakland residents today, they spent six years working on the documentary.

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"We could sort of use the camp to shift peoples' perception of disability and then tell one of the great kind of unknown, unsung civil rights stories of our time was really intriguing to me," said Newnham.

In the five hours of unedited film shot, the Jened campers discovered common bonds and a desire to remove barriers that impinged on their path to independence.

"There's the anti-war movement. There was the civil rights movement. There was the women's movement and gay rights movement, and looking around, we need one for ourselves," said LeBrecht.

Judy Heumann had been a previous Jened camper and returned as a counselor that summer.

"We really felt that we needed to come together in order to really express a new vision and that we were going to be the leaders of that vision," Heumann said.

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The Bay Area became ground zero, where the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley was pioneering efforts for self-determination. Progressive policies to support disabled students at UC Berkeley had also opened long-closed doors.

Six years later in 1977, ABC7 Reporter David Louie covered Judy Heumann and others from Camp Jened occupying the San Francisco office of the U.S. Dept. of Health Education & Welfare over inaction to sign regulation 504 that would have barred discrimination of the disabled by any entity that received federal funds. The 28-day sit-in posed great risks for the participants.

LeBrecht described the hardship in the documentary. "Not having a back-up ventilator, not having your usual personal car attendant, not having access to catheters..."

A coalition of activists, churches and community groups provided support.

"The Black Panthers provided food. Delancey Street and many other groups were helping us," said Heumann.

Dissatisfied after a meeting with local agency leadership, some of them decided to fly to Washington, seeking a meeting with President Carter. Former ABC7 News Reporter Evan White went along.

"The airline made it as easy as possible on those traveling in this group, especially those in wheelchairs," he said, standing in the aisle of a plane, from a story found in the ABC7 News archives.

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In time, their determination prevailed.

"It shows that a small group of people can actually make a big change, and it shows that people taking to the streets and demanding their rights really does work," said producer Newnham.

Newnham and LeBrecht's documentary "Crip Camp" is Oscar-nominated for best documentary feature. It puts the spotlight on the largely forgotten early fight for disability rights. However, even after some advances, LeBrecht pointed out there remains a need for disability justice 50 years after the movement started to take shape.

"The fact that I can't use the bathroom on an airplane, that I have to be carried to my seat is still a big issue, and employment in the disabled community is woefully low," he said. He also pointed out a need for the creative community to hire more disabled actors, producers, directors and crafts people.

LeBrecht could be the first disabled director to win an Oscar statuette.

See full coverage on the 2021 Oscars here.
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