In the early 1970s, teenagers with disabilities faced a future shaped by isolation, discrimination and institutionalization. Camp Jened, a ramshackle camp ‘for the handicapped’ in the Catskills, exploded those confines. Jened was their freewheeling utopia, a place with summertime sports, smoking and make-out sessions awaiting everyone, and campers felt fulfilled as human beings. Their bonds endured as they migrated west to Berkeley, California – a promised land for a growing and diverse disability community – where friends from Camp Jened realized that disruption and unity might secure life-changing accessibility for millions.
Yes, this is a tough film to watch. But get over yourselves. If you are serious about treating the COVID-19 lockdown as a time for regrouping, for getting back to what is important, then grow a spine and start with this film.
I burst into tears during the opening scene. But then, I had a seriously disabled brother, so I would burst into tears at the sight of a bus full of wheelchair-bound children. You probably won’t burst into tears. You will probably laugh at the motley crew of disabled teens attempting baseball in their staggering, stuttering wheelchair-based glory. And it’s okay. You need to have a sense of humour when facing disability. My favourite running joke when friends ask me how many siblings we are, is to answer two and a half – my disabled brother being the half.
I also felt like throwing up halfway through this film – once again, because I was a witness to the fuck-up that is disability in our society. You might not feel like throwing up, but you will feel uncomfortable. You should feel more than uncomfortable about what happened at Willowbrook, what still happens today. You should feel outraged.
You will be moved by Kevin, who speaks with great difficulty, translating for Nancy, who almost cannot speak at all. You will be moved by the group patiently waiting for Kevin and Nancy to finish. At Camp Jened, everybody had to be heard, because disabled people are mostly not heard, or seen. Don’t look away from disabled people. Look them in the eye. Say hello.
The first half of the film deals with the holidays at Camp Jened, the second half with the revolution it sparked. Disabled ramps and toilets are par for the course today – thanks to this same motley crew of disabled horny and frustrated teens, who met up at a summer camp that gave them a taste of a better, more independent life. They stayed in touch, fought to be a part of mainstream society, and then one day decided to stand up and be counted. Well, maybe sit or lie down or roll up and be counted. (I can make that joke. I had a disabled brother.) Nonetheless, they fought the US government and won.
I've sat through most of the terrific Netflix doccies. Let’s face it, they don't necessarily highlight the best of humanity. Hence, throughout this film, I expected something really, really bad to happen. Something dodgy at camp. Someone stealing Nancy’s money. Something traumatic that would be a trigger point. Unkindness. Then I realised that the "bad" had already happened to these extremely courageous people. They were born with spina bifida, were hit by a bus. They were already "screwed", as Kevin put it. The trigger point in this film, what catapults it forward, is kindness.
Watch the trailer here: