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Netflix's ‘Crip Camp, about the fight for disability rights, has a Sonoma County connection

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The title may not sound respectful at first, but the name of new documentary “Crip Camp,” now streaming on Netflix, aptly sums up the humor and candor of the disability rights activists the film follows from the ’70s to the present.

Although the story starts on the East Coast, it has a local connection, too. Two Sonoma County crusaders for the rights of the disabled contributed to the documentary: Graton writer and activist HolLynn D’Lil with an interview and her photographs and Anthony Tusler of Penngrove with a photograph.

“Crip Camp” opens with footage of the film’s director James LeBrecht — now a Berkeley sound designer, editor and mixer — as a 15-year-old in a wheelchair attending the summer Camp Jened program for young people with disabilities in upstate New York in 1971. In his voiceover narration, he calls it “a summer camp for the handicapped, run by hippies.“

While there, young campers who had lived in isolation or suffered intolerance could speak freely and be heard by their peers for the first time in their lives.

The core group formed at Camp Jened went on to lead a nationwide drive for equal rights under the law for the disabled.

Viewers glimpse the dynamic Judith Heumann, a disability rights leader who later served in federal posts under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as an outspoken teenager pressing fellow campers to decide whether they wanted lasagna for dinner. She is one of the film’s producers.

D’Lil enters the story half a dozen years later in 1977, when more than 150 San Francisco protesters, led by Heumann and others, occupied the fourth floor of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s regional office and stayed there for three and a half weeks.

The activists fought for, and ultimately won, enforcement of section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the first federal civil rights law for people with disabilities.

“It was that spirit of Camp Jened that resulted in the 504 demonstration,” D’Lil said in a recent interview.

D’Lil’s 2015 book “Becoming Real in 24 Days” gives her first-hand account of the demonstration that began April 5, 1977. D’Lil had approached Ms. Magazine about covering the event and, armed with a borrowed Nikon camera, arrived with plans to take photographs and chronicle the demonstration. More than 90 of her photos appear in the film “Crip Camp.”

She came to the protest as a curious observer but became an advocate. Each day of the demonstration, D’Lil drove from Sonoma and returned to take care of her children, Chelsea and Trusten.

The film also features a photograph of the protest taken by Tusler, who was running the Sonoma State University (then Sonoma State College) student disability services office at the time and had previously served as photo editor of the Bugle, an alternative newspaper in Sonoma County.

“I went to the demonstration and I took my camera, but I only took one roll of film with me,” Tusler said. “It was the best roll I ever shot.”

By day 24 of the 26-day demonstration, the Carter Administration moved to implement the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 without language that would have that weakened it, requiring recipients of federal funds to provide equal access to people with disabilities.

The language contained in Section 504 laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which extends protection to employment, state and local governments and privately-funded public accommodations.

D’Lil, now 74, was 22 when a car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. While she has accomplished much, she still faces negative attitudes about disability.

“I very honestly talk about when I came into my disability at age 22, I had deal with my own prejudice,” she said.

“We all have experienced the stigma. There was a lot of shame connected with having a disability, shame about who you are, and you have overcome that. I still experience it today. There’s no logic to it, but it’s just there.”

“Crip Camp” doesn’t endeavor to make anyone feel guilty, and it shows the disabled as strong individuals. “It’s not a pity party,” D’Lil said.

The documentary turns the traditional perspective — of “normal” people examining the plight of the disabled — inside out, said Tusler, 72, whose life in a wheelchair began at age 5, when he was wounded in a gunshot accident that left his legs paralyzed.

“Usually in a film like this, it’s the able-bodies opining about the disability movement,” Tusler said. He’s delighted “Crip Camp” was picked up by Netflix. “All of a sudden, there’s this audience that never would have seen it on the festival circuit.”

The power of the film lies in its straightforward portrayal of people with disabilities as people first and activists second. In the film, a woman with cerebral palsy is amused by healthcare professionals who are shocked to discover she’s sexually active.

“We have come a long way to get recognition as human beings,” D’Lil said. “We’ll always need to battle to keep what have achieved, and there’s a lot more to be done.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

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