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Demonstration for Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the first civil rights for people with disabilities. Photographs of San Francisco 504 demonstration by Anthony Tusler.
Demonstration for Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the first civil rights for people with disabilities. Photograph of San Francisco 504 demonstration by Anthony Tusler.

The Empowering Force Of Community
As The First Step Towards Civil Rights

Apr 23, 2020

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Oh, how I wish I had gone to Camp Jened. Although I had never heard of the place six months ago, after watching the remarkable documentary 'Crip Camp' on Netflix I discovered a summer camp where disabled teenage campers could be themselves. It took until I was in my mid-20s to discover the joy and pride of being a member of the disability community. We recognized we had been systematically excluded from so much. We decided to change the world. Crip Camp tells that story. The film shows in a delightful way the empowering force of community as the first step towards civil rights.

Crip Camp co-directors, Nicole Newnham Malarkey and Jim LeBrecht smiling and having fun on a Berkeley street corner in January 2019. Jim is wearing a faded, grey Crip Camp t-shirt. Image: Nicole Newnham Malarkey Facebook page photos.
Co-directors  James LeBrecht  and  Nicole Newnham,  have created 'Crip Camp' — a new documentary on Netflix. The film, a Barack and Michelle Obama Higher Ground Production, has had universal mainstream and disability community acclamation. In 'Crip Camp' the world gets an insider perspective on disability. Rather than experts or academics opining about the importance of the Disability Rights Movement Crip Camp gives us the story told by the participants. The former Camp Jened campers tell the story of awakening to a world of acceptance, fun, sexuality, and collective action. Not only is the story endlessly fascinating, it is also fun. Crip Camp is no inspirational tear jerker.

Jim LeBrecht Summer of 1971 Camp Jened, Hunter, NY. Photo: Jim LeBrecht Facebook photo.James LeBrecht, a noted Berkeley sound engineer and power wheelchair uses his experiences as a disabled teenager at Camp Jened and later in life as a sound engineer at Berkeley Rep to anchor the Crip Camp story of acceptance, joy, and pride. When LeBrecht tracked down five and a half hours of video footage taken at the camp by the People's Video Theater, a documentary became a reality. Some of the footage had been shot by LeBrecht himself. The videographers had strapped the bulky Portapak recorder to the back of the teenage LeBrecht’s wheelchair and handed him the camera. In the film his young voice can be heard interviewing other campers. 

Demonstrators in SF 1973. Photographs of San Francisco 504 demonstration by Anthony Tusler.

Camp goes on to tell how some of the Camp Jened group moved to Berkeley when they were in their mid-20s. In Berkeley they discovered an even broader, proud disability community — the same one I stumbled upon in the early 1970s. That community began to realize how as disabled people they were marginalized and excluded. 

Demonstrators in SF 1973. Photographs of San Francisco 504 demonstration by Anthony Tusler.As documented in the film, the Berkeley group organized a national political action that forced the Carter administration to enact Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the first civil rights for people with disabilities. It happened as a result of the twenty-six-day sit-in they staged at the San Francisco Federal Building. Fortunately, two Sonoma County disabled photographers, Graton’s HolLynn D’Lil and myself from Penngrove, were there in San Francisco to document the sit-in. Her photos and interviews tell part of the 504 story.

A movie poster showing a vintage color snapshot. A young adult is being pushed in his wheelchair by a counselor who has a guitar sling over his shoulder. In the background are the low slung bunks and building of Camp Jened. Image: Nicole Newnham Malarkey Facebook page photosAlso told is how, unfortunately, Section 504 did not result in the kind of accessibility dreamed of. It took more political organizing and work to finally in 1990, get the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) passed. Crip Camp uses the organizers and other people with disabilities to tell the story of how the ADA has resulted in significant changes.

I rarely use the word inspirational when talking about disability or people with disabilities. It  all too often gives false meaning to the disability experience. The documentary 'Crip Camp", though, tells an inspiring story. The film shows how people on the margins, people often shunned and excluded, can find community, political power, and social justice.

Photographs of San Francisco 504 demonstration by Anthony Tusler

Contact :  ATusler@AboutDisability.com

 

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