Crip Camp

by Michael Young | April 2, 2021
7 min read
Crip Camp movie poster

Editor’s Note: This is the first of five reviews of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best feature-length documentary, all of which are available for streaming. The reviews, specially commissioned by the Sun from former New Mexico-based movie reviewer Michael Young, will all be published before the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on April 25. Young will write a sixth column for the Sun, sharing his judgment about which documary should win. At the end of each review, Young provides information about the streaming platform(s) on which the documentary can be viewed. Welcome, Michael!

The butterfly effect, in chaos theory, suggests that minor changes in initial conditions can have dramatic effects later as causal changes ripple through time.  The term was used to suggest that even the random flutter of butterfly wings in Africa could change the path or strength of a later hurricane as it barreled towards the Caribbean.

“Crip Camp” is a moving example of how the principle works in the social realm.The documentary traces the impact of a seemingly simple summer camp experience on several disabled campers, who later become national leaders in the movement for equal rights for the handicapped.  New York Times critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote that the film “makes the case that a Catskills summer camp for the disabled fostered a sense of community and creativity that fed directly into the American disability rights movement in the 1970s.” The strength of the movie is in how it manages to draw such strong lines between the teenage summer camp experience, and dramatic, nationwide political change.

The documentary is the product of multiple collaborators. The Obamas’ Higher Ground production company bought the film at the Sundance festival, and their backing brings it obvious credibility. James LeBrecht, co-writer and co-director with Nicole Newnham, attended Camp Jened, in the Catskills of New York, as a teenager in the 1960s. The summer camp had been founded in 1951 by a group of parents of disabled children who were trying to find a retreat for their kids where they could feel free to play a game of baseball without being afraid of the response of others.

LeBrecht had spina bifida and is permanently confined to a wheelchair. Partly as a result of his experiences at the camp, he became interested in audio engineering, earned a college degree and moved to Southern California to work in the film industry. (He has worked in the sound department of several movies). After reuniting with one of his fellow campers, after several decades, he got the idea of creating a film about his experience at the camp, secured partners, and the result is an Oscar-nominated movie.

This film, like so many of today’s good documentaries, adopts a perspective I like to call “the really long view.” LeBrecht was able to uncover home movie-style footage of Crip Camp that was more than five decades old. The grainy and choppy, hand-held cinematography does not detract from the experience, but instead adds to the realism—this could easily be the summer camp that we went to when we were teens of the sixties.

Camp Jened baseball game
A baseball game at Camp Jened in the Catskills, where James LeBrecht, the movie’s co-writer and co-director, was a camper in the 1960s. Photograph copyright © by Patti Smolian courtesy of

LeBrecht could easily have built the entire movie around the found footage. But he didn’t stop with this windfall. Instead, he traced the steps of several of the campers through the next several decades.

Many Camp Jened attendees, finding strength in the community and freedom they had enjoyed there, end up becoming leaders in the movement for equal rights for the disabled during the seventies, eighties and nineties. LeBrecht uses footage from newsreels as well as personal recordings to document hearings before Congress and administration officials. There is extended coverage of 1977’s 504 Demonstrations in San Francisco where, despite unusual problems like managing catheters and sleeping in wheelchairs, disabled people mounted a three-week sit-in at government offices trying to secure enforcement of a law mandating disabled access to services of any agency or organization getting federal money. The sit-in succeeded when Health Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. finally signed the regulation several years after it was originally mandated.

Camp Jened who became disability activists
The documentary traces how their liberating experiences at Camp Jened forged several attendees into leaders of the movement to gain equal rights for the disabled in the late 20th century. Photograph copyright © by HolLynn D’Lil courtesy of

During the Reagan era in the eighties, budget constraints largely forced recognition of rights for the disabled into the background, but, thanks to the efforts of several Crip Camp graduates (among many other activists), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed by George H. W. Bush and became the law of the land. It prohibited discrimination against the disabled.

The movie ends with some of the campers’ returning to Camp Jened just a few years ago. The camp had closed in 1977, and the buildings were all gone, and the site was being converted to another use. Still, even after several decades away from her experiences there, one camper was so moved she exclaimed: “I almost want to get out of my wheelchair and kiss the fucking ground.”

Taking the “long view” of an issue requires an immense amount of patience on the part of a documentary filmmaker and the enviable skill to weave a particular narrative thread out of the hundreds of hours of potential footage. Last year’s documentary nominees included films like “For Sama” and “American Factory,” both of which tracked events over three or four years. In “Edge of Democracy,” we get a telling of the Brazil’s history over a decade or so based on remarkable access to the inner workings of government in that troubled country.

“Crip Camp” is unique among recent documentaries in chronicling the lives of people over such an extended timeframe. In many ways, the movie reminded me of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of feature films. To maintain a consistent message over such a length of time, using such a varied combination of cinematic resources, is a remarkable accomplishment. It testifies to the passionate commitment of LeBrecht to his message and his love for his camp friends.

In the end, this movie is about hope and compassion. We see how people, sharing so much in common, learn that they are neither invisible nor powerless. We see them grow from adolescents sitting around the table, discussing typical teenage issues like freedom, recognition, sex, even the right to be alone. Seen through eyes of these unusually vulnerable kids, the issues seem much more profound.

And then, over the course of the next two decades, collapsed into an hour in the film, we see how these young people courageously take what they’ve learned and transform themselves into major players on the American scene with a commitment and enthusiasm that most of us would be hard-pressed to emulate. And then, at the end of the movie, everything comes back full circle to the place where their journeys started—radically different and yet so suffused with good memories.

Disabled people face incredible difficulties. But, as this film shows, they sometimes experience the world with an intimacy and a potency that most of us can only wish for. And, as this movie so beautifully demonstrates, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can ripple and grow through time into a powerful storm.

The first of this year’s five nominated documentaries sets the bar extremely high.  Looking forward to viewing the rest. 4 stars

“Crip Camp” is available on Netflix streaming with a subscription and free on the Netflix YouTube channel

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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