How a summer camp changed lives and spurred a revolution

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Camp Jened was more than just your average summer camp. It served as a formative Summer experience for campers and counselors alike and became a key factor in the American disability rights movement.  

Located in upstate New York, Camp Jened was specifically designed for teens with disabilities. It created an environment where they felt accepted and could gain a new sense of freedom, which many were not able to experience at home. The isolation many were subjected to in their hometowns was left behind and replaced by love, understanding and acceptance. Being treated like any other camper allowed them to experience life from a new perspective and created a new generation of civil rights activists.  

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” a 2020 documentary film written and co-produced by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, shares the story of Camp Jened along with the importance of the community-centered atmosphere and strong friendships that led many campers to become leading activists and advocates for disability rights. LeBrecht was a camper himself and provides viewers with a candid look inside the camp. 

The film starts in 1971 at Camp Jened with black and white footage showing the campers and counselors arriving. Camp Jened was one of the first of its kind, so many of them did not know what to expect. What unraveled after was an unforgettable summer. The daily footage allows viewers to travel back in time to scenes of joy and blissful carelessness accompanied by music blasting in the background, camp love stories, swimming and more. In the film, campers recall a tough-love approach that forced them to do things outside of their comfort zone like play baseball and take part in other activities they were never allowed to do at home. 

The remainder of the film plays out almost like a camp reunion where campers were invited to share their own experiences and the many ways that Camp Jened changed their lives. Through these stories, viewers can gain a historical perspective about what the country was like before the disability rights movement. 

The disability rights movement is an often-neglected piece of history and “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” sheds light on the importance of this civil rights fight. Before the movement, disabled adults and children were not welcome at Summer camps and There were many accessibility issues, like the absence of wheelchair ramps and Braille signs, that prevented people with disabilities from going to many public places. The movement was rooted in the desire for equal opportunities and equal rights for people with disabilities. Activists fought tirelessly for accessibility, safety, independent living and education equity.  

One of the greatest achievements of the disability rights movement is the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark piece of civil rights legislation passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination based on disability in all aspects of life including jobs, school, transportation and other  places open the general public. The purpose of the law is to guarantee that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. This law kick-started a lot of progress and helped put a stop to the discrimination people with disabilities faced.   

“Crip Camp” is a feel-good documentary that is a must-watch to understand and learn about the overlooked history of the disability rights movement. Camp Jened allowed people with disabilities to live in a free atmosphere. The camp showed them how they should be living and how society was wrong in the way it viewed disabilities. After years of discrimination, harassment and misunderstandings, the camp prompted a radical revolution that finally provided people with disabilities the rights they deserve. 

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