This year has been a struggle for most of us between the ongoing pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement to the toxic political climate. It is also very reminiscent of another time in recent history when there was a good deal of civil unrest in our nation.
At the beginning of this year I was notified that my brother, Stephen Hofmann, was one of several featured participants in a documentary film, “Crip Camp,” directed and produced by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. Former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama saw the value of this piece of work and executively produced the film with their production company, Higher Ground, making the lifelong dream of former camper LeBrecht a reality. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been available to stream on Netflix since March.
Camp Jened was a camp established in 1951 at the foot of Hunter Mountain in the Catskill Mountain range in upstate New York for disabled young adults. By the time my brother Stephen, who had cerebral palsy, and his fellow campers arrived in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the counterculture was in full swing and the camp was now run by free-spirited and casual hippie counselors who were extremely liberal in their practices and procedures in running a camp of this nature. So while other hippies were enjoying Woodstock, my brother and his friends, known later as the ”Jenedians,” were sent to this camp less than two hours away. It was a camp that catered to disabled youth but it was the first time these campers felt the kind of freedom most of us take for granted. Out of this freedom they began to voice their wishes and desires and it sparked a revolution.
At this camp, a film crew had been taping conversations the campers had with the counselors and each other about what they missed out on by being disabled and how they felt about being viewed as “different.” In one particular clip you see Judith Heumann leading a group of other campers to make their own meal one night, saying it was the cooks’ night off and for them to take a vote on what they would cook themselves that evening.
This may have been the prompt that led her to later become the trailblazer behind Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights movement for people with disabilities. Section 504 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The Jenedians, led by Heumann, enlisted hundreds of people both able-bodied and disabled to crusade in the public arena. There were sit-ins, hunger strikes, marches and finally, legislation. It would have been a herculean feat by anyone, let alone a woman with polio who lived her life in a wheelchair, but it didn’t stop her then and she continues to work for social justice now.
Camp Jened may have been thought of as a little summer break for the parents who had to care for these youngsters, but the reality was that it was divine intervention that allowed for this to transpire in order for these youngsters to find their voice. Being in community together helped them forge relationships and bonds that would last a lifetime and it helped to light the match of passion and desire and fight for their rights as fellow human beings.
Sadly, my brother did not live long enough to see the fruits of his labor in this film as he passed away in 2017, but his whole family got together at the premiere in New York in February and we all celebrated this film by passing out buttons with his photo on it. He would have gotten such a kick out of being a celebrity. He will always be a celebrity in our eyes. Although I was too young during the time of Camp Jened and the fight for Section 504 to really understand or appreciate what was transpiring at the time, this film has given my family and I an incredible legacy to carry including for his two children, Shannon and Emily. Emily even appeared in the film at the bittersweet end and spoke so eloquently about her dad. Stephen used to say, as he would climb down into the subway, that all he needed was one person to help him with his wheelchair and that would be enough to get him anywhere. Thanks to Heumann and all of the Jenedians, no one has to climb down, they can take an elevator and be independent, which is really all they ever wanted, just like all of us.
During this time where there is an increased focus on diversity and inclusion, I recommend “Crip Camp” as a must-see. It shows how one small voice can inspire and illuminate an entire group of people to come together and show enormous strength and resilience. My eternal gratitude to James LeBrecht for never giving up on this project.