Disability Power Series

Crip Camp: Building Power to Create Culture Change

Lindsay Drexler
July 22, 2020

Like pretty much everyone else, we were blown away by Crip Camp, the Netflix documentary that follows several teenagers at a summer camp for people with disabilities in the 1970s. Through an intimate disability lens, this groundbreaking film illustrates how their seemingly simple childhood experience at Camp Jened paved the way for a disability revolution.

In June, we invited Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham (co-directors and producers of Crip Camp), Andraéa LaVant (impact producer for Crip Camp), and Disability Lead Member Reveca Torres (co-director for ReelAbilities Film Festival Chicago) to join our Disability Power Series panel discussion: Crip Camp: Building Power to Create Culture Change.

Claiming Disability Power

All the panelists, minus Nicole, have disabilities. To kick off the discussion, each one explains how they — or Crip Camp, in Nicole’s caseclaim disability power.

Jim claims his power through years of advocacy in the entertainment industry. “I worked for many years as a sound mixer at a post-production sound company and I pushed hard for inclusion for people with disabilities in the industry, which means advocating for accessibility, for not only physical spaces, but the perceptional, […] just really advocating within the documentary world for a number of years for diversity and inclusion.”

According to Nicole, “One of the most profound ways that Crip Camp claims power is by being a film that is told from the perspective of a storyteller with a disability.” That storyteller, of course, is Jim, who not only co-directed Crip Camp, but as an attendee at Camp Jened, is heavily featured in the documentary footage as well.

As a way of claiming power, Andraéa embraces all the pieces of her identity. “Rather than dancing around the word, I just say I’m a Black woman — I’m a Black, disabled woman.” Additionally, she seeks out corporations and organizations that have yet to embrace disability inclusion. “I appreciate the opportunity to be in spaces and places that don’t necessarily talk about disability […] if there is some way for me to push through the door, then that’s one way I like to claim power.”

Reveca claims her disability power via artistic expression. “I do that through my art, whether it is visual art, or using writing, storytelling, just talking to people, telling people my story.” She adds, “But I also think showing up and being present in the community and showing up and being present for my peers and my fellow people with disabilities […] is very important.”

The Power of Disability Stories

As someone who didn’t find a disability community until college, Reveca hopes that movies like Crip Camp introduce younger generations to the concept of disability pride earlier in life. “I think it is very, very impactful to have films such as these, such as Crip Camp that not only tells the history, but also shares that community. […] Having that stigma of identifying as someone with a disability, and the moment when that shifts to become pride — that is an awesome thing.”

“The idea that young people, that whoever sees the film can be introduced to [disability pride] by happening to flip through Netflix is just powerful,” says Andraéa. “[Growing up,] I knew about Malcolm X, I knew about Martin Luther King, all of these other leaders in the Black community — not necessarily because it was not taught in school, but because it was taught in my home. I had this pride because I knew all of this work had been done and there was this history. And that is what Crip Camp does. It tells that story where you’re like, ‘Wait a second. Oh, my goodness, this is so cool. Not only do I want to be a part and active, but I can be proud of this because all of these people came before me.’”

Four screenshots from Zoom panel discussion in 2x2 grid: 1 man, 3 women. All in their homes, smiling.
Screenshots from panel discussion. Clockwise, starting from top left: James, Andraéa, Nicole, Reveca.

Continuing the Disability Story Momentum

Jim believes that in order for disability stories to move forward, “people have to be willing to identify as disabled. There is so much stigma involved, especially when you have a hidden disability, […] but I think there’s a benefit for the [entertainment] industry to know that there are many more people than they realize with disabilities.”

Nicole relates her experience as a woman in the film industry over the last 30 years to the burgeoning disability perspective in that very industry. “I felt like there were a lot of presumptions about things I couldn’t do, or rooms I couldn’t be in or would never be in, and I have seen that shift. I think that so many things that were important about making that happen for women are also important about breaking down the barriers [for people with disabilities]. Like getting people in writers’ rooms, getting people to be on the boards of the nonprofit organizations that support independent storytelling*, and bringing the perspective of disability, training about disability history and disability justice, to organizations […] is really important.”

*side note: getting people with disabilities on the boards of organizations happens to be our main focus!

Intersectional Inclusion

Crip Camp features extensive footage of the 504 Sit-in, a major disability rights protest. Reveca recalls a memorable scene where an unexpected group shows up to the sit-in. “One thing I really liked about the film was learning about the Black Panthers stepping in and helping. They did not come in and say this is what we’re going to do. They sort of were like, ‘How can we help?’ and let the leaders in the disability community take the lead.”

“Inclusion includes really looking out for racism and ableism wherever you go and being willing to stick your neck out if that is what it is going to take to say something or to stop a conversation and when you do that, you’re also modeling for other people how to do it themselves,” says Jim. “I’m not suggesting people take risks that are going to cause them anxiety or pain or hurt, but what I’m saying is — you need to get engaged, and well beyond your specific identity.”

Crip Camp: The Virtual Experience

Andraéa is not Crip Camp’s sole impact producer. She shares that role with Stacey Park Milbern, who sadly passed away in May. However, even in death, Stacey’s impact lives on. “I always talk about when Stacey and I were dreaming this up and going, ‘Do you think we could maybe get 1,000 people to participate?’” recalls Andraéa, “And we have close to 8,000 people who have registered from all over the world.”

Crip Camp: The Virtual Experience runs every Sunday from 4–5:30 p.m. CST through August 25th. Free—registration required.

Thank you to our Disability Power Series sponsors:

Disruptor: Ann Manikas

Disability Power Series