“I wanted to be part of the world, but I didn’t see anyone like me in it.”
These words, spoken by James LeBrecht indicate the lack of disability representation in media. Countering this lack of representation, LeBrecht set out to tell his story about his time at Camp Jened during the 1970s, described as a “ramshackle camp” once located in the Catskills, New York, wherein disabled teenagers “experienced liberation and full inclusion as human beings.” LeBrecht teamed up with co-director Nicole Newnham, as well as a team bursting with disabled writers and activists, to create Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Released at the Sundance Festival, and available to watch on Netflix, Crip Camp tells the interwoven history of the disabled teenagers’ liberation at the camp, and the ways that these newly-emboldened advocates fought for groundbreaking legal changes, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
With a “100% Fresh” critical score on Rotten Tomatoes, Crip Camp was recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. While the response to the nomination has been overwhelmingly positive, one critic referred to the film as “Oscar-bait.” These two words have a heavy connotation when it comes to disability representation. An excellent video by Jessica Kellgren-Fozard explains how movies often use disabled characters in a saccharine way, to tug at the heartstrings of nondisabled viewers. Thus, nondisabled people are prioritized over disabled people. Such representation is inauthentic, tokenistic, and exploitative. Even worse, these disabled characters are usually played by nondisabled actors; in fact, half of the Best Actor Oscars have gone nondisabled actors for these portrayals.
With such an established history of negative disability representation winning awards, it raises the question: is Crip Camp Oscar-bait? No.
I genuinely loved this movie and the stories within, many of which parallel my own life. I was born with Spina Bifida and became a wheelchair-user at the age of twelve. For years, the only other disabled children that I knew were the ones who were hidden away in an isolated special education classroom, only emerging when the rest of the school needed to be inspired (sarcasm). This narrative changed when I attended Cradle Beach Camp in Angola, NY. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by children who looked like me, who moved like me, who lived like me, who conversed with me. Though our conversations weren’t nearly as raunchy as the ones filmed at Camp Jened, they still contained the same levels of heightened awareness of our places in society and our commitment to overcoming, and dismantling, social barriers. Even now, as I work on my Ph.D. at the University of Leeds’ Centre for Disability Studies, I think about my time at Cradle Beach Camp and how it shifted the way that I view the topic of disability. This feat is exactly what Crip Camp accomplishes: it shifts the narrative.
Unlike other Oscar nominated films, Crip Camp isn’t using disabled people in a tokenistic or exploitative way. It does not succumb to inspiration porn, which the late, great, Stella Young discusses in her TED Talk. Rather, it intentionally centralizes the voices and histories of disabled people. It does so in a way that aligns with the popular mantra used by many disabled activists: “Nothing About Us Without Us.” As David Radcliff—Chair of the Disabled Writers Committee at the Writers Guild of America West, and consultant on the film—tweeted: “#CripCamp: A story by us, about us, and for the benefit of everyone.” While it’s true that Crip Camp can, and should, be watched by everyone, what arguably sets this film apart from others is the fact that it has impacted disabled viewers just as much, if not more than, nondisabled viewers.
Kristen Lopez, a writer for IndieWire, firmly believes the film deserves an Oscar. She tweeted: “As a disabled writer who spent a lot of years not seeing themselves, I can’t stress what this movie could mean for a lot of disabled teens growing up right now.” I wholeheartedly agree with their article and tweet; I wish that Crip Camp had existed when I was younger. I wish that I had grown up with this representation.
Crip Camp deserves to win an Oscar not because it inspires nondisabled people, but because it inspires disabled people. For too long, movies have been made through a nondisabled lens, prioritizing their voices over ours. Crip Camp subverts this narrative by centralizing disabled people’s voices. Disabled people are the driving force behind the documentary. Disabled people are the focus. Disabled people are the writers. Disabled people are the stars. Disabled people are gearing up, anticipating Sunday night. To quote Judy Heumann: “Even if we don’t win, we don’t lose.”