Jim LeBrecht was born with spina bifida, a congenital disability in the spinal cord that prohibited him from using his legs. When he was 14 years old, he attended a summer camp in New York described as a “loose, free-spirited camp designed for teens with disabilities” called Camp Jened. This sparked LeBrecht’s lifelong career as a disability rights activist.

In the Variety Streaming Room moderated by film awards editor Clayton Davis, LeBrecht spoke about his documentary film “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” that he co-directed alongside Nicole Newnham. The two became friends while LeBrecht worked as a sound mixer on Newnham’s independent feature “Sentenced Home” back in 2006.

“Over time, I would say the experience of becoming friends with Jim was like opening a portal to me into the world of disability,” Newnham said. “I started to see it in ways that I hadn’t seen it before. I hadn’t seen disability as a culture. I hadn’t really understood it as a community. Jim was introducing me to rappers and dancers and artists and all kinds of people within the disability community that just really expanded my framework.”

Over lunch one day, LeBrecht told Newnham that he would love to see a film made about his summer camp: Camp Jened.

“The idea of being able to kind of combine an immersive summer camp story that would be fun and universal with a really important movement story that people hadn’t heard of was super exciting,” Newnham said. “I think the thing that I had to wrap my mind around was that the most important piece was actually Jim’s lived experience and the fact that this was his story. So I went back and said, ‘I really want to do this, but I think we should co-direct it together,’ and that’s how it got going.”

Judy Heumann attended Camp Jened with LeBrecht and also went on to become an advocator for disability rights. She pointed out how the civil rights movement was exploding in the 50s and 60s, yet the disability community was excluded from the movement. She said that “Crip Camp” was an excellent way to express their frustrations, anger and acceptance of their discrimination.

“When you look historically at this film, I think people get a better sense of the progressions that we’ve made and the progress that we’ve made today,” Heumann said. “At the same time, understand that this is not the end of the story, but really the beginning.