A still from “Crip Camp.” Photo: International Documentary Association

The disability rights movement in Berkeley takes center stage on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival in the film “Crip Camp,” a documentary that traces the infancy of the movement to a revolutionary summer camp tucked away in upstate New York.

Directed by Bay Area filmmakers James “Jim” LeBrecht, a Berkeley resident, and the Emmy award-winning Nicole Newnham, the film premieres Thursday at the festival in Park City, Utah. It is one of the first films that Barack and Michelle Obama produced for Netflix.

“Crip Camp,” tells the story of how a summer camp for disabled teenagers helped give birth to an important but sometimes overlooked civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, there was no federal law that prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Institutionalization was more common than it is today. But the teenagers who attended Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers and adults with disabilities, imagined a brighter future. A group of campers found community and camaraderie during their weeks in upstate New York in the 1970s, and Camp Jened served as an incubator for the disability rights movement. Many of the campers later moved out west to Berkeley, where the struggle for equal rights and representation was already well underway.

“Berkeley as a city is the home of the disability rights movement so it makes perfect sense that this film would be coming out of the Bay Area,” says Berkeley City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf.

“Crip Camp” director was a part of the movement

LeBrecht, the founder of Berkeley Sound Artists, an audio post-production house, and the co-director of “Crip Camp,” was among the group of campers that landed in Berkeley in the 1970s. “Crip Camp” is told from the perspective of LeBrecht, whose long history of activism on the part of the disabled started in high school and carries through to today.

LeBrecht, who declined to talk to Berkeleyside ahead of the movie’s release on Netflix, was born with Spina Bifida, a condition that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly and often results in restricted mobility. LeBrecht was born in an era where individuals with disabilities had limited, if no, options in terms of accessible living, workplaces, and transit. When he was a young child, he navigated the stairs of his split-level childhood home by crawling or climbing, he told SFGate.

But LeBrecht’s parents didn’t want him to live a sheltered life and he worked hard to ensure his opportunities were not limited by his physical disability, he told the newspaper. He became active in the disability rights movement in his teens and helped start the Disabled Students Union at UC San Diego, according to Catapult Film Fund.

Lebrecht worked as Berkeley Repertory Theater’s resident sound designer for 10 years and worked in sound design at the Saul Zaentz Film Center and at Skywalker Ranch. LeBrecht has had immense success as a sound designer, with more than 179 film credits on IMDB.

“When I was growing up, people like Jim were institutionalized, they were shut out of society,” says Wengraf. “I’d love to meet Jim’s mother someday. She must be an extraordinary woman. She raised Jim with an enormous amount of self-confidence and the belief that he could do whatever he wanted. That was an extraordinary thing for the time. She was on the cusp of the disability rights movement.”

LeBrecht is a former colleague of Wengraf’s husband, Academy Award-winning sound designer Mark Berger, and has known the family for many years. Similar to LeBrecht and Camp Jened campers, Wengraf told Berkeleyside that she came to Berkeley in 1969 on a mission to help children with disabilities express themselves through filmmaking and photography.

“I think film is a powerful medium for telling any good story,” said Wengraf. “Film has the capacity to envelop you in an experience, unlike any other medium. I’m sure [“Crip Camp”] would be a good book but I think film is more effective at telling this kind of story.”

man holding another man at a summer camp
A still from “Crip Camp,” by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht. Photo: Steve Honigsbaum

The history of activism for disability rights in Berkeley

By the time Wengraf and the activists from Camp Jened arrived in Berkeley in the 1970s, the struggle for equal rights for the disabled had already started. In 1962, Ed Roberts, the University of California Berkeley’s first student with severe physical disabilities, started a protest group called the Rolling Quads, whose activism helped establish the first Disabled Student’s Union on campus back in the 1960s.

Ten years later, the work of activists such as Roberts, Hale Zuckas, and Jan McEwan Brown led to the opening of the Center for Independent Living, Inc. (CIL) in 1972, an organization dedicated to peer support and helping persons with disabilities lead independent lives. The CIL is still active today and is connected to the Ashby BART station at the Ed Roberts campus.

Telling the story of the disability rights struggle

“Crip Camp” might elevate the history of the disability rights movement, which is lesser-known in Berkeley than other protest movements born here.

The film is included in the first slate of films being produced by Higher Ground Productions, the Obamas’ film company, which is devoted to telling the stories of civil rights pioneers.

By recognizing a story about the struggle for disability rights alongside stories of other civil rights movements, Netflix and the Obamas are helping bring more awareness to this often overlooked and underrepresented movement, says contributor Sarah Kim in an editorial for Forbes.

Wengraf expressed similar feelings, saying the support of Michelle and Barack Obama is an enormous honor, noting “…it’s kind of a dream for every documentary filmmaker to be acknowledged in this way and get this kind of boost, it’s phenomenal. This is a dream come true for Jim and everyone else who thinks this is an important story to be told.”

Wengraf says she has a vision for a museum in Berkeley’s Civic Center that would have a wing devoted to the disability rights movement, alongside other important moments in Berkeley’s history.

“I think this is a very important story to be told [and] it’s going to be up to us, it’s not necessarily our issue, it’s going to be up to us to bring it to the public realm,” says Wengraf.

Netflix will be releasing “Crip Camp” in spring 2020.

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