November 24, 2020 – This film starts out about the way you would expect, but then it veers off in another direction and becomes a different kind of film. This is one of the Netflix films executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama
The film starts out as a story about an innovative summer camp in the Catskills called Camp Jened, founded in 1951 as a camp for disabled children, it became part of the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s, when the camp became less structured and more free wheeling. For the first time in their lives, young disabled people found themselves in an environment where they were treated as equals, given choices most kids take for granted.
At Camp Jened, they could persue romantic relationships, seek out solitude, or participate in sports, or other kinds of group activities. They also had input into how the camp was to be operated, what kind of food would be prepared and what activities would be featured. Most of the candid scenes of activities at the camp were videotaped by the People's Video Theater in the early 1970s.
In this counterculture environment, campers developed networking and organizational skills that would carry them to great achievements later in life. They developed the sense that they could achieve great things if the societal barriers holding them back could be eliminated. Campers, who later called themselves “Jenedians” became civil rights activists who advocated for handicap access to housing, transportation and employment.
Abruptly, the focus of the film shifts from the camp to the civil rights activism of the Jenedians. One of the leaders of this movement is Jenedian Judith Heumann, who in 1970 sued the New York Board of Education and won the right to earn a teaching certificate. She became the first wheelchair bound teacher in New York. She was a founder of the activist group Disabled in Action.
Disabled in Action organized demonstrations and sit-ins to work for enforcement of Section 504 of the 1973 federal Rehabilitation Act. Handicapped people occupied U.S. Health, Education and Welfare offices around the country with the aim of getting the government to enforce the act. They were successful.
Later, Jenedian activists were once again at work trying to get more legislation passed, this time, it was the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The movie follows the efforts of disabled activists, their determination, their courage and their resourcefulness, as they eventually got the legislation passed despite stubborn opposition.
These handicapped people, living with the aftereffects of polio, birth defects, injuries and other conditions, are sometimes hard to watch as they struggle just to speak or move about, but gradually it becomes clear that even though some of them can barely speak, they have profound things to say.
I remember when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. I did not think it was necessary at the time, but since then I have come to see the wisdom of the law, and the need for it. This law, like many others, requires adoption of a point of view of the people who need it to be correctly evaluated.
Although this film opens with a depiction of a historical camp for handicapped people, it ends up as a film about a powerful civil rights movement. The two themes are tied together by the fact that the civil rights movement for handicapped people arose from the power of compassion, love and respect unleashed at Camp Jened. In turn, this led to the dignity and self-reliance needed for the campers to eventually succeed in their civil rights struggle. This film rates a B+.
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