The R-Word. Directed by Amanda Lukoff. New York: Women Make Movies, 2020. 65 minutes.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, 2020. 108 minutes.

Reviewed by Krystal Cleary and Hilary Ouellette1

The R-Word (2020) and Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020) share a thematic engagement with disability inclusion and the politics of language. The two films, however, are juxtaposed in their intended takeaways and emotional registers. In its exploration of the injurious emotional and cultural impact of words, The R-Word demonstrates how the titular slur is not only widely accepted in mainstream media and popular discourse but also institutionalized in official documentation. Whereas The R-Word is a call for empathy in which the voices of nondisabled family members are heard the loudest, Crip Camp’s account of the US disability rights movement unabashedly positions disability as a civil rights issue from the perspective of brazen disabled activists. Moving the conversation from disability inclusion toward disability justice, Crip Camp is a must-watch film for the feminist classroom.

From her position as the sibling of an intellectually disabled sister, filmmaker Amanda Lukoff effectively demonstrates in The R-Word that language is never neutral or apolitical: like other slurs, the r-word is born of and perpetuates oppressive ideologies that interpersonally and systemically shape how we perceive and treat others. The documentary examines the r-word’s history as a medical term turned contemporary epithet to argue for its eradication from colloquial speech, media, and institutional parlance. Contradictorily, the film makes repeated unexpurgated use of the r-word, undercutting its assertion that the injurious word should be discarded. One of the film’s highlights is its discussion of Rosa’s Law2 and the activism of self-advocates with intellectual disabilities and their families to eradicate the r-word from policy, though the film’s attention to political action is secondary to its emotional address. Ultimately, The R-Word is narratively driven by familial love to impress upon viewers that people with intellectual disabilities are undeserving of the r-word’s vitriol. While the film does include the voices of people with intellectual disabilities, we found that their perspectives were regrettably eclipsed by interviews with nondisabled family members and cultural and linguistic experts.

Undergraduate students will likely find The R-Word’s thesis convincing yet quite elementary. There is arguably not enough academic meat on the bone to warrant a full screening, unless the objective is to encourage students to both learn content from and critique the execution of the film. Instructors might thus show selected clips and/or teach the film alongside supplemental material that adds necessary nuance to its discussion of the power of words.3 The most pedagogically useful portions of the film for the feminist classroom map the r-word’s historical development and contextualize it in a broader politic of language by drawing parallels to other pejorative epithets. We found these important discussions to be far too brief. To expand this account, we advise assigning readings on the history of eugenics (Snyder and Mitchell 2006). The film could also be used to initiate a classroom discussion about disability-related language more broadly. We generatively paired the film with Eli Clare’s “Freaks and Queers” (2015 [1999]) and Simi Linton’s “Reassigning Meaning” (1998),4 which offer a more robust analysis of how language accumulates cultural baggage, who determines what is a “good” or “bad” word, and which words are amenable to reclamation.

Crip Camp, on the other hand, is an empowering and humorous film about finding community, building a movement, and changing law and culture that is sure to enrich the feminist classroom.5 The documentary begins in the early 1970s at Camp Jened, a New York summer sleepaway camp for disabled youth, where campers—including codirector Jim LeBrecht—first experienced a world where able-bodiedness isn’t the default. The film narrates how the disability culture and political consciousness fostered at Camp Jened seeded the grassroots organizing of the disability rights movement. Weaving together historical footage of direct action and contemporary interviews with now-adult campers and their comrades, Crip Camp covers the 504 sit-in,6 emergence of the independent living movement, and activism leading up to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to the film’s explicit politicization of disability and documentation of an oft-neglected history, we appreciated that it subverted dominant framings of disabled people as passive and asexual.

Though substantive enough to screen on its own, instructors might extend Crip Camp through a discussion of the reclaimed slur “crip,” a term that the film does not unpack. Victoria Ann Lewis’s entry “Crip” in Keywords for Disability Studies (2015) offers a concise overview of the term’s origins, pejorative use, and resignification as a political identity and mode of critique. The aforementioned chapters by Linton (1998) and Clare (2015 [1999]) would also help guide students through the thorny terrain of disability terminology.7 Crip Camp is moreover ripe for a feminist classroom’s examination of rights-based and justice-based frameworks. In this vein, it is open to critique: aside from briefly highlighting the mutual aid provided by the Black Panther Party and lesbian activists during the 504 sit-in, the film represents disability activism as overwhelmingly white and does not apply an intersectional lens to disability. The single-axis approach of the disability rights movement and, consequentially, the film, should be addressed in the feminist classroom. To this end, we found it generative to pair the film with chapters from Fading Scars: My Disability History by Corbett O’Toole (2019),8 who is featured in the film, as well as selections from Sins Invalid’s Skin, Tooth, and Bone, a Disability Justice primer that centers disabled people of color and queer disabled people (2019). Sami Schalk’s Black Disability Politics (2022), which draws on archives of the Black Panther Party, also promises to be an important text for intersectional examinations of disability activism.

We do not advise screening The R-Word without also teaching Crip Camp or otherwise screening carefully selected clips of The R-Word. Crip Camp does not directly engage with intellectual disabilities, an exclusion that characterizes much of critical disability studies and activism; in this way, The R-Word fills a gap, though imperfectly. It is important to note that both documentaries amplify, nearly exclusively, the voices of white disabled people. Nevertheless, both The R-Word and Crip Camp are useful pedagogical tools not in spite but because of their various shortcomings, for they invite students to critically analyze disability advocacy and the role of media in shaping discourses of disability as a lived experience, identity, and coalitional movement.

Works Cited

Clare, Eli. 2015 (1999). “Freaks and Queers.” In their Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, 81-118. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lewis, Victoria Ann. 2015. “Crip.” In Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, 46-48. New York: NYU Press.

Linton, Simi. 1998. “Reassigning Meaning.” In their Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, 8-33. New York: NYU Press.

O’Toole, Corbett Joan. 2019. Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: Reclamation Press.

Rosa’s Law.” 2017. Federal Register 82, no. 131 (July 11): 31910-13.

Schalk, Sami. 2022. Black Disability Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sins Invalid. 2019. Skin, Tooth, and Bone: The Basis of Movement Is Our People. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Sins Invalid.

Snyder, Sharon, and David Mitchell. 2006. “Subnormal Nation: The Making of a U.S. Disability Minority.” In their Cultural Locations of Disability, 69-99. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1 We, a professor and a student, screened these films in an independent study on disability and sexual culture. Coauthoring our review of the films’ pedagogical potential for the feminist classroom allowed us to include the perspectives of both an instructor of critical disability studies and an undergraduate student who is just beginning to study the subject.

2 Passed in 2017, Rosa’s Law amended federal education laws in the United States, such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Rosa’s Law removed the r-word from policy and replaced it with “intellectually disability.”

3 A 28-minute educational version of The R-Word is also available through Women Make Movies.

4 Linton’s chapter is especially useful because it considers a myriad of disability-related terms to elucidate how “nice words” (such as “physically challenged”) can insidiously perpetuate ableism and “nasty words” (like “crip”) are sometimes reclaimed by community insiders.

5 Crip Camp is available on Netflix and is publicly accessible in full for free on YouTube here. The film’s website also includes a curriculum guide for educators.

6 Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits disability discrimination in federally funded programs.

7 Clare’s chapter, which grapples with the painful histories and political im/possibilities of crip (as well as freak, queer, and the r-word), may be especially useful in this discussion.

8 The O’Toole chapters “Flexing Power: San Francisco 504 Sit-In” and “Disability Queered” are especially relevant.

Dr. Krystal Cleary ( is a professor of practice in the Department of Communication and Program of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She conducts her interdisciplinary research at the nexus of critical disability studies, media studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Her work has appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, Feminist Media Histories, and the NYU Press edited collection Disability Media Studies.

Hilary Ouellette ( is a Newcomb Scholar and a Tenenbaum Sophomore Tutorials cohort member at Tulane University, majoring in public health and sociology with a minor in gender and sexuality studies. She is currently engaged with multiple different fields of study and hopes to either attend law school or pursue a PhD after graduation.