Judy Heumann’s disability rights work has spanned decades and helped to pave the way for the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act. But for some Netflix subscribers, their first introduction to the activist was as a 20-something camp counselor in the 1970s leading a discussion on an evening’s dinner options of veal or lasagna. In James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s Crip Camp, Heumann is seen as one of the counselors at Camp Jened, a New York summer camp for teens with disabilities. Her tenure at Jened preceded her founding Disabled in Action and serving as special adviser on international disability rights for the U.S. State Department.
What was it like seeing yourself as a camp counselor again?
When I first saw it I was definitely laughing. Obviously, it brought me back to the camp, but seeing myself, now that I’m 73, when I was 21 is funny. But many people who have seen the film who know me, they say, “You haven’t changed a bit.” (Laughs.)
How did the doc capture the importance of Camp Jened at that time?
One of the takeaways for many people who watched the film was the amount of time that people spent listening to each other and how that was something that was valued. The other important aspect of the film is that it doesn’t end at camp. It moves forward so that people are able to get a clear understanding of some of the events that were going on between ’71 and when they stopped gathering footage. The film itself, if it would’ve just been footage of the camp, would have been a very interesting film. But it is a dynamic film because not only does it keep moving forward, it leaves you with the impression that there’s a lot more that needs to be done.
What considerations do you think filmmakers or Hollywood at large should be making when telling stories involving disability?
They need to be talking with disabled people. They need to be bringing disabled people to the table in the development of their materials, and they need to be hiring disabled people for a part or all aspects of the work. Ultimately, it’s not just about looking at more Crip Camps and more films on disability, but it’s really also about understanding that disabled people, both on the sets and off, have much to contribute around disability, but also in general. To be able to see people from diverse backgrounds — including disabled people of different racial backgrounds with different disabilities, both visible and invisible disability — allows people to get an understanding of who we are and how we’re a part of the whole.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story appears in the April 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.