Disability rights activists Denise Sherer Jacobson and Neil Jacobson, subjects of "Crip Camp," in their early 20s. (Photo/Courtesy Netflix)
Disability rights activists Denise Sherer Jacobson and Neil Jacobson, subjects of "Crip Camp," in their early 20s. (Photo/Courtesy Netflix)

‘Crip Camp’: disability rights activists and their summer of love

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“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” is a new documentary on Netflix about a summer camp for disabled kids in upstate New York. Founded in 1951, by the early ’70s it was run largely by hippies. Some of those counterculture-era campers went on to become high-caliber activists who teamed up to bring about big changes in civil rights laws, notably the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 108-minute film is worth viewing on its own merits — it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the audience favorite award — but it also features a number of local ties.

It was co-directed by Bay Area filmmakers Jim LeBrecht (a former camper) and Nicole Newnham, and produced by them along with Sara Bolder of Oakland. LeBrecht and Newnham will take part in a live discussion of the film sponsored by the Jewish Film Institute on May 7 at noon.

Among those prominently featured in the film are Neil Jacobson and Denise Sherer Jacobson, an Oakland Jewish couple who met at Camp Jened as teens in 1968. Denise, now 70, served as a consultant on “Crip Camp” and was the person who came up with the provocative title (crip being the disability community’s reclaiming of the historically derogatory term cripple).

The documentary, executive-produced by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, profiles a “summer of love” at Camp Jened in the Catskills. But the campers’ connections and thirst for their civil rights extended beyond their summer idyll, as many went on to become architects of the disability rights movement.

The film follows them staging the 1977 national protests known as the 504 Sit-in, demanding enactment of Section 504 to put teeth in federal legislation that had been passed in 1973 to end discrimination against disabled people. In San Francisco, the Black Panthers fed the protesters and the Salvation Army provided them with mattresses. By 1990, they’d achieved passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The documentary includes interviews with LeBrecht (who attended the camp at age 15), disability rights pioneer Judy Heumann (a counselor at the camp), and Neil and Denise (native New Yorkers, each with cerebral palsy).

Years later, Neil and Denise came to the East Bay as graduate students, got married and adopted a son (chronicled in Denise’s book “The Question of David”). They became successful professionals and career activists; they’re also members of Temple Sinai in Oakland, where Neil serves on the board of trustees.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Jacobson, 67, said in an interview for this story that “having a boy with a severe disability was devastating to [my parents]. In the Holocaust, disability equated to death. They were determined that I be independent in order to survive.”

Denise, an oral historian in addition to having a career as an educator, recounted how the film and its title came about. Part of the story has to do with her recently completed but yet-to-be-published book, “My Camp Jened Summer: A Teenage Misfit’s Tale of Love, Heartache, and Belonging.”

“In 2011, Jim [LeBrecht] and I bumped into each other in Berkeley,” she said. “I was working on my memoirs of camp, and Jim had always dreamed of making a film about camp. We’d get together from time to time to discuss it. One day we were bantering [about] titles and I threw out ‘Crip Camp.’ It was an off-the-cuff thing, but it stuck. I had second thoughts later because I wasn’t sure how the disability community or the public would receive it.”

For starters, Neil was taken aback — that is, he said, “until I realized what a great eye-opener it is. It shows that there’s a disability community with its own culture, that enjoys life.”

The camp closed in 1977 and reopened at another New York location in 1980, before succumbing to financial difficulties once again in 2009 and shutting its doors for good.

“Jened was transformative,” Denise recalled. “Outside camp, we lived in a world all too ready to label, stereotype and exclude us because of our disabilities. At Jened, we could escape the restrictions and stereotypes society had ascribed to us as people with disabilities since the time we were children.”

In addition, “Jened fostered my sense that I could be of help to others. As a camper, I was expected to assist my bunkmates. Before I went to Jened at age 16, I always got the message that I would always be the one needing help.”

No less important than the camp’s emphasis on individual potential was the exposure it afforded campers — via its mostly college-age staff of ex-campers, hippies and anti-war activists — to the revolutionary zeitgeist of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests. Campers and staff “were there to have fun together, as equals,” Neil said.

The film includes a tour of the camp, captured some 50 years ago by a teenage LeBrecht, that shows the secluded places where campers would go with their girlfriends or boyfriends at night.

“If you have any doubts about what we did,” Neil said as a bit of teaser, “watch the film. One of the women counselors taught me how to kiss. One of the best physical therapies ever!”

That was part of the magic of Camp Jened. Rather than treating its disabled campers with kid gloves, it recognized them as the boisterous, hormonal teenagers they were.

“Denise and I have spoken at a few ‘Crip Camp’ Q&A sessions,” Neil said. “I’m surprised that the focus [of the questions] has been mainly on [the film’s] advocacy aspects and little on the camaraderie and social aspects. Disability isn’t always heavy. Having fun, fully living life, enjoying family and friends are just as important.”

Lezak Shallat
Lezak Shallat

Lezak Shallat grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and works with words.