Meeting filmmaker of ‘Crip Camp’ was an emotional experience

I recently had a chance to spend some time virtually with Jim LeBrecht, an icon in the disability rights movement and a personal hero of mine.

Lebrecht is a filmmaker, sound designer and disability rights activist. He’s the co-director of “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution," which is about his experience attending a summer camp that brought together people with disabilities who became civil rights leaders in the disability movement. 

Like me, LeBrecht was born with spina bifida and depends on a wheelchair for mobility.

We were brought together thanks to the Holland Human Relations Commission. The HRC created a three-part community learning experience called Equity of Access: Understanding Disability, Equality, and Rights. 

The series included the showing of ‘Crip Camp,’ a roundtable discussion, and a communitywide book reading.

Creating activists

‘Crip Camp’ is about Camp Jared, a summer camp for teens with disabilities located down the road from Woodstock in upstate New York. Directed by LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, the rousing documentary is about a group of campers turned activists who shaped the future of the disability rights movement and changed accessibility legislation. LeBrecht was one of those campers whose experience is shared in the film.
Jim LeBrecht, the filmmaker behind 'Crip Camp'
I was thrilled when I was invited to be part of the roundtable discussion, where I had a chance to engage with LeBrecht, who joined us virtually from his home in Oakland, California. We discussed the challenges for and triumphs of people with disabilities.

There's so much history about the disability rights movement that so many people didn't know about before the documentary. I love the way he has brought this topic into mainstream culture with his film.

LeBrecht’s story is powerful, especially for people like myself, who didn't have to go through some of the discrimination that he and others of his generation faced, such as the recognition that they are capable individuals. Their victories paved the way for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. 

I'm 43 and haven't had to deal with some of the discrimination that these other individuals faced. For example, Judy Heumann,was told she couldn’t be a school teacher because the school board believed she would not be able to get students or herself out in case of a fire. Fortunately, she was very vocal and knew that she had rights and that others with disabilities had rights.

The final event of the series was a reading and discussion of “Being Heumann: The Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist,” by Heumann with Kristen Joiner. Heumann, who died in March, changed my life.

‘Open our eyes’

I commend the HRC for its mission to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and access, and for putting in the considerable resources to create this three-part series.

“We felt it was important for us as a community to understand that disability rights are civil rights,” explains Catherine Ristola Bass, chair of the Human Relations Commission. “The story of Camp Jened and the subsequent work of disability rights champions like Judith Heumann and James LeBrecht open our eyes to the truth that people with disabilities are not medical problems to be healed. This series explores how society can design our infrastructure and systems that meet the needs of persons with disabilities. Equity of access looks different for someone with a disability than for those without. It involves ramps, sign language interpreters, captioning, personal assistance, and so much more.”

Equity of Access was hosted by the Human Relations Commission in partnership with Disability Network Lakeshore, Hope Network, The Arc, Benjamin’s Hope, and Compassionate Heart Ministries.
I’m grateful for the nearly two dozen people who attended this amazing series. I only wished more had made time to attend and learn about the people who paved the way for the ADA. 

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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