A Series of Fortunate Events | Events throughout the Triangle through August 30

You probably didn’t read about Camp Jened in your high school history textbooks. A summer camp for disabled teens in operation from 1951 to 1977, the New York Catskills camp paved the way for activists who are still living and working today. Each magical summer, a group of campers, some of whom had come from government-run institutions, experienced a kind of autonomy and community they didn’t have access to in their daily lives. It changed them.

“What we saw at that camp is that our lives could be better,” James LeBrecht, former camper and the co-writer and co-director of the 2020 Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp, says in the film. “You don’t know what to strive for if you don’t know it exists.”

Ignited by their ability to create change, many campers as well as counselors, led by disability rights pioneer and Crip Camp star Judy Heumann, became activists and launched a disability civil rights movement that continues to this day. Movement is the inspiration behind the upcoming sixth annual A Series of Fortunate Events festival organized by Arts Access, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that bridges disability and the arts by providing advocacy, training, outreach, and accessibility. As the organization defines it, movement can refer either to the act of changing physical location or to a group of people working together to advance their ideas. The festival provides ample opportunities to explore both definitions of the word.

“Twenty-five percent of the population has a disability,” says Eileen Bagnall, executive director of Arts Access. “We hope the festival gives the community a chance to see incredible art-making from members of the disability community and how their work isn’t any different than any other working artist’s.”

The summerlong festival kicks off on May 14 at the North Carolina Museum of Art with two showings of the bold and rollicking Crip Camp, which is as relevant and boundary-pushing today as it was when it debuted in 2020. Each of these showings will be preceded by a never-before-seen virtual panel with Heumann and Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. The pair are longtime friends as well as colleagues and will discuss how Heumann navigated a nascent movement.

The relevance of the film’s themes extends well beyond the camp itself.

Crip Camp is an example of collaboration where disabled people were significant drivers of the discussion and the format,” Heumann says, “but the messages [within the film] have impacted disabled people and non-disabled people alike in different ways.”

Heumann expresses her hope that the film will pave the way for other narratives about disability. “I want [Crip Camp] to be one of many,” she says. “ It is obviously a fantastic film and is one that should be utilized forever, really, because it tells a very powerful story. But it is not the totality of the [disability] stories.”

When I asked her to name a few of her favorite disabled artists, she pointed to the works of composer Gaelynn Lea, producer and animator Kaitlyn Yang, and writer Alice Wong, among others. Series events will continue throughout the summer.On June 4, in partnership with the Durham County Main Library, Arts Access will host visual art and movement activities inspired by the 2021 children’s picture book We Move Together (recommended for ages six through nine). Written by two disabled educators and illustrated by a multimedia artist, this joyful and inclusive book celebrates the inherently creative and innovative ways that disabled bodies move through the world and create community. This event will also feature two short performances by ComMotion, a local dance company that provides low-cost dance and movement classes to people of all abilities. Each participant will receive a free copy of We Move Together.

The festival culminates with a juried art exhibition, Movement, on display July 1–August 30 at the Hall Gallery in Raleigh’s Sertoma Arts Center, with a reception held on Sunday, July 24. Kim Tyler, an acrylic landscape painter and ink artist who also happens to be legally blind, will serve as a juror. North Carolina–based disabled artists who want to submit their work may apply through the Arts Access website through May 16.

As with all of its offerings, Arts Access has taken great care to make the entire festival accessible, providing live ASL interpretation and audio descriptions for both Crip Camp showings, as well as ways to participate in all three festival events from home. And in the spirit of accessibility, the entire festival is free to the public.

“When we think about accessibility in the literal sense, we think of ramps, handlebars, curb cuts, sign language interpreters, captioning, audio description,” Heumann says. “All those things allow access. But we also need to be looking at the barriers that are currently in place that restrict people from feeling welcome and valued in whatever it is they’re doing.”

The conversation around disability is getting more mainstream, but we still have a long way to go toward recognizing all of the essential contributions of this diverse community. The Series of Fortunate Events festival offers one easy but impactful opportunity to celebrate local disabled artists.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.