'We know people see our lives as disposable and dispensable'

How a hippie New York camp put rocket fuel in disability advocacy

Netflix documentary ‘Crip Camp’ charts how an inclusive 1960-70s summer camp in the Catskills shaped activists who are fighting for equality today amid the COVID-19 crisis

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Denise Sherer Jacobson (Netflix)
    Denise Sherer Jacobson (Netflix)
  • Judith Heumann at a 504 protest in front of The White House (Netflix)
    Judith Heumann at a 504 protest in front of The White House (Netflix)
  • Denise Sherer Jacobson (left) and friends at Camp Jened (Courtesy of Denise Sherer Jacobson)
    Denise Sherer Jacobson (left) and friends at Camp Jened (Courtesy of Denise Sherer Jacobson)
  • Camp Jened (Steve Honigsbaum)
    Camp Jened (Steve Honigsbaum)
  • Judith Heumann speaking at a 504 protest. (HolLynn D'Lil)
    Judith Heumann speaking at a 504 protest. (HolLynn D'Lil)

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” is a documentary about how a summer camp for disabled teens run by hippies in the 1960s and 1970s helped launch the disability rights movements. Executive produced by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, it began airing on Netflix in late March, smack in the middle of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Denise Sherer Jacobson, who has cerebral palsy and appears in the film, is extremely pleased about the timing. Concerned about discrimination toward people with disabilities during the current COVID-19 crisis, she believes the film’s message is crucial.

“We know that people see our lives as disposable and dispensable. That’s why the film ‘Crip Camp’ is so vital right now. It reminds audiences of the tenacity and resilience of the human spirit in each and everyone,” Sherer Jacobson, an author and educator, told The Times of Israel in an email interview.

Sherer Jacobson, 70, and her retired bank executive husband Neil Jacobson, who also has cerebral palsy, are featured in “Crip Camp.” It was at Camp Jened that they were initially nurtured as activists for disability rights — a role they still play today at home in Oakland, California, and in the broader American Jewish community.

Originally established in 1951, Camp Jened was always dedicated to nurturing children and teens with disabilities such as polio and CP. The camp, located in the Catskill Mountains of New York, became heavily influenced by the counterculture movement in the following decades.

All campers had disabilities, as well as many of the counselors. At Jened, young people with disabilities found a haven from the social stigmas they encountered at home, and a place where they could indulge in typical adolescent experimentation with drug use and sexual exploration.

“One of the main things I learned at Jened was that we are okay the way we are and that our bodies can feel good and bring us joy,” said Neil Jacobson, 67, who adopted and raised a son (who is now 33) with his wife.

One of the scenes in “Crip Camp” shows a meeting of older teens sitting around a table on the porch of one of the camp buildings. They share their frustrations associated with maturing and trying to separate from their families, while at the same time having to rely on their parents for help with things that most teens can do for themselves. It was a rare space to explore together how they could shape their own futures.

“Jened fostered my sense that I could be of help to others. Even as a camper, I was expected to assist my fellow bunkmates. Up until I went to Jened, I always got the message that I would always be the one needing help. At Jened, I discovered everyone has something to contribute. It gave me a sense of self-worth and my own unlimited possibilities,” Sherer Jacobson said.

Denise Sherer Jacobson (left) and friends at Camp Jened (Courtesy of Denise Sherer Jacobson)

The film shows how Jened raised the consciousness of young adults with disabilities about their “power and responsibility to ensure change,” as Neil Jacobson put it. It shows how “Jenedians” were among the leaders of the disabilities rights movement from the 1970s through to the passage of the American Disabilities Act in 1990, and on to today.

An advocacy star is born

If there is a star of “Crip Camp,” it is Judith Heumann. The film’s archival footage hints early on that the then-young Heumann was destined to be a major figure in the fight for rights for people with disabilities.

Sitting in her wheelchair, the charismatic Heumann commands the attention of a large group of campers and staff in a discussion of what they can prepare on their own for dinner on the camp cook’s day off. The hope was for veal parmesan, but Heumann authoritatively nixes the dish due to budget constraints. She suggests lasagna as an alternative — and although she tells the others to think about it, it’s clear she has successfully used her powers of persuasion.

Judith Heumann speaking at a 504 protest. (HolLynn D’Lil)

Heumann, who went on to hold positions in US government and with major international organizations, is portrayed in “Crip Camp” as a key leader and spokesperson for the disability rights movement.

Heumann, now 72, told The Times of Israel that she never decided to be an activist and leader.

I have a big mouth, and I like turning ‘no’ into ‘yes’

“I mustered up strength and courage and joined with others. I have a big mouth, and I like turning ‘no’ into ‘yes,'” Heumann explained about how she ended up at the struggle’s fore.

In 1970, Heumann filed a law suit against the Board of Education of the City of New York. The city had refused her a teaching job, claiming that she could not evacuate her students and herself in case of a fire. Heumann won the suit and became the first wheelchair user to teach in New York. The victory spurred her to establish Disabled in Action, an organization that fights to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities through political protest.

Judith Heumann as a girl (Courtesy of Judith Heumann)

Heumann, who contracted polio at age 18 months, was fortunate to have parents (both pre-war Jewish German refugees whose own parents and extended families were killed in the Holocaust) who fought for her rights as a child.

“I was denied entry to our local public elementary school in Brooklyn, and my parents worked to get me in. Later, my mother helped organize the public high school to make it accessible so I could go there,” said Heumann, who now resides in Washington, DC, with her husband.

In the mid-1970s, Heumann joined the Jacobsons and others in Berkeley, California, home to the Center for Independent Living.

The center provided a wide range of services and supports to help people with disabilities live independently in their local communities. Heumann served as deputy director of the center for seven years, and the center eventually inspired similar programs in 20 different countries.

A month-long sit-in

The film puts a considerable focus on Heumann’s leadership of what is known as The 504 Sit-In. The demonstration was a protest against the US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano’s refusal to sign meaningful regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Protests took place in 10 cities on April 5, 1977 and were kicked off with a sit-in led by Heumann in the San Francisco office of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. 150 people with various disabilities occupied the premises for 28 days. The protesters prevailed and Califano ultimately signed the regulations.

A protest for disability rights (HolLynn D’Lil)

While in Berkeley, Heumann completed a master of public health degree. The Jacobsons also pursued advanced academic degrees, with Neil earning an MBA for Golden Gate University in San Francisco, and Denise receiving an MA in human sexuality, marriage, and family life education from New York University.

“Our education was very important to our families as a way to level the playing field because of our disabilities. They saw it as a way for us to be successful,” Sherer Jacobson said.

The fight goes on

Even before the coronavirus hit, there was much still to do to improve the lives and ensure the rights of people with disabilities. According to Jacobson, increased efforts are needed to decrease homelessness and poverty among the community and their families. He’d like to see a decrease in the number of incarcerated people with mental health, intellectual and learning disabilities.

Jacobson is also in favor of a universally affordable and accessible health-care-for-all plan that would include long-term medical expenses, such as personal assistant services, durable medical equipment, ongoing therapies, and maintenance drugs.

Social activist Judith Heumann (Netflix)

Like Sherer Jacobson, Heumann wants to ensure that people with disabilities do not receive lesser interventions or treatments if they contract COVID-19. She is also concerned about the situation of people with developmental disabilities whose caregivers, parents and other family members are not allowed to enter the hospital to be with them because of fear of contagion.

Looking ahead, Heumann said this is the time for the community to demand it gets a seat at the table as decisions are made about how the world will emerge from the current crisis. People with disabilities need to have a say about the economy, jobs, healthcare, and much more, she said.

“It’s an opportunity for us to be more engaged in what our communities and countries will look like in the future,” Heumann said.

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