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"Crip Camp" and the disability rights movement

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The new Netflix documentary, "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution," tells the story of teenagers with disabilities who attended an upstate New York summer camp in 1971 would go on to become powerful leaders in the disability rights movement. Correspondent Rita Braver talks with Jim LeBrecht, who – 50 years after attending Camp Jened – collaborated with Emmy-winning filmmaker Nicole Newnham on their acclaimed documentary, now shortlisted for an Academy Award. Braver also talks with activist Judy Heumann about how the Camp Jened experience inspired her in advocating for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Video Transcript

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): It is an unexpected sight, all kinds of kids with all kinds of disabilities at summer camp having the time of their lives. The year was 1971, the place, Camp Jened in New York's Catskill Mountains.

JIM LEBRECHT: Well, Camp Jened was a place that was a utopia.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): Jim LeBrecht, born with spina bifida, was one of the campers.

JIM LEBRECHT: It was a place where, all of a sudden, the rest of the outside world seemed to just disappear.

- When you got back into--

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): Judy Huemann, who got polio at 18 months old, was a counselor.

RITA BRAVER: You were really cute.

JUDY HEUMANN: I really laughed when I saw the film. It was so funny to see me at 21.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): And we are seeing this old footage now as part of a recent documentary called "Crip Camp," short for the word crippled which, let's face it, is not bandied about these days.

RITA BRAVER: Why did you call it that, Jim?

JIM LEBRECHT: We wanted to basically let people know that this wasn't your average film about disability, that there was an edge.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): Jim LeBrecht is not only a major character in "Crip Camp," he's also one of the filmmakers, collaborating with Emmy award-winning documentarian Nicole Newnham.

NICOLE NEWNHAM: Jim made me see disability as a culture. He made me see disability as a community.

- We could talk about parents.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): Jim vividly remembered this Camp Jened footage, made by a freewheeling experimental group.

- We are People's Video Theater. Whatever, actually, you really want to say about yourselves, let us know.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): They captured Camp Jened kids revealing some of their most personal feelings.

- [INAUDIBLE]

- I think Nancy is talking about what everybody wants, to be alone sometimes in their life.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): In lighter moments, Jim LeBrecht got to shoot video himself, a camera strapped to his wheelchair.

- Is this necessary? [INAUDIBLE]

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): But LeBrecht had no idea what had become of the video after almost half a century.

NICOLE NEWNHAM: And that was just incredibly enticing to me as a filmmaker. It felt like it would be the holy grail. I just spent night after night looking online.

- (SINGING) What a long strange trip it's been.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): She finally found it. And the footage became the starting point for the rest of the Netflix documentary, a project that attracted the Obamas as executive producers.

NICOLE NEWNHAM: They really were creative partners.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): Some of the campers, especially Judy Heumann, would become leaders in the disability rights movement.

NICOLE NEWNHAM: You don't get to see footage of our great civil rights heroes at summer camp.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): Huemann founded a group called Disabled in Action.

JUDY HUEMANN (IN FOOTAGE): We decided that we were going to sit down in the street, and we were going to stop traffic.

JUDY HEUMANN: It was very important for all of us, that we wanted people to see us.

RITA BRAVER: You became one of several people from Camp Jened who moved out to Berkeley, California. Why did you go out there?

JUDY HEUMANN: I was offered a scholarship. And then a number of friends followed.

RITA BRAVER: It almost felt like you were this little band of brothers and sisters.

JUDY HEUMANN: Well we were, really. And we still are.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): In 1973, Congress passed a law giving the disabled limited protection.

JUDY HEUMANN: If you get money from the federal government, you may not discriminate against someone based on disability.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): But President Jimmy Carter's administration delayed approving new regulations needed before the law could actually take effect. Huemann helped lead a sit-in with scores of disabled people, including some from Camp Jened, at a federal office building in San Francisco.

NEWS PERSON 1 (IN FOOTAGE): Protesters in wheelchairs, the lame, the palsied, and the blind have occupied the entire fourth floor since Tuesday.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): The sit-in would go on for weeks. Finally, Huemann and a small delegation traveled to Washington DC to gain attention, hauled around town in the back of a truck.

NEWS PERSON 2 (IN FOOTAGE): In Washington today, more than 100 people marched in front of the White House.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): On the 23rd day of the San Francisco sit-in, the regulations were very quietly signed in Washington.

JUDY HUEMANN (IN FOOTAGE): The Congress, the press, the American public has been that we have stamina, strength, intelligence.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): But remember, those new regulations only applied to certain places. Jim LeBrecht, a few years younger than his other camp friends, was starting work at a Berkeley theater, a job that required him to drag himself up this flight of stairs every day.

RITA BRAVER: Did you ever just say to yourself, I can't do this anymore? I'm going to have to quit.

JIM LEBRECHT: To be honest, no, I didn't. This job was a dream job for me. I felt like if I didn't succeed in this job, I didn't know what I was going to do.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): But disabled Americans demanded change. They kept the pressure up, some even scaling the Capitol steps in peaceful protest. Finally in 1990, Congress passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, banning discrimination and requiring ramps and other assistance for disabled Americans nationwide.

GEORGE HW BUSH: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): The Camp Jened gang celebrated at last year's Sundance Film Festival, when "Crip Camp" earned the Audience Award.

JIM LEBRECHT (IN FOOTAGE): This was a love letter to the disabled community, and it is. And I'm so proud to be up here.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): Now the film is on the short list for an Oscar nomination.

JIM LEBRECHT: If we help people to reconsider how they see people with disabilities or, on a larger scale, anyone that's not quite like themselves, then we've achieved a great, great deal.

JANE PAULEY (NARRATING): And Judy Huemann, who in 2010 went on to become the State Department's first advisor for International Disability Rights, believes that watching "Crip Camp" could bring a moment of truth for viewers.

JUDY HEUMANN: And hopefully, some of those people will leave the film reflecting on how they have treated other disabled people, or how they may have a hidden disability that they've never been public about, and why that is.