When we started ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, over six years ago, all I knew was that there were important and powerful films that were not getting enough exposure and deserved a platform. I knew the disability community was underrepresented and no one else was showing these films. But what I've learned over the years of programming ReelAbilities has changed my life more than I ever could have imagined. Here are four of those things:
1. During our first year of ReelAbilities we presented a screening of a film on the topic of deafness. About half the audience was hard of hearing or deaf. After the moving film we had a Q&A which required multiple interpreters. I did not know that every English speaking country uses a different form of sign language. This meant that an interpreter needed to translate British sign language for the British director which then was translated into ASL for the American signing audience. When someone who was signing from the audience would ask a question, I of course instinctively would hand a microphone to them, not realizing that holding a microphone would actually inhibit someone who is signing from asking their question. The person I actually needed to hand the microphone to was the ASL interpreter who would voice the question for the hearing audience.
2. After our first year of ReelAbilities, we learned that we had been ignoring the blind community. We were surprised that this community would take interest in a film festival which is, after all, a visual medium. We were introduced to audio-description for films, which allows people who have loss of vision to follow and enjoy movies. To our surprise, there was no one creating audio description in NY, so we brought up someone from DC and created a training program in the art of audio description for film. The graduates of this course continue to create descriptions for us annually. This requires not only to objectively and gracefully describe a film, without taking away from the director's perspective, but often reading and giving life to the subtitles for the dialogue in some of our foreign films. The blind community has been enjoying ReelAbilities ever since.
3. Running a film festival that requires accessibility is not as simple as one would think. Not only do members of the audience with diverse accessibility concerns need to access the theaters in our dozens of locations, but often our guest filmmakers and speakers have accessibility needs. It was heartbreaking to learn how difficult it is for a person in a wheelchair to navigate the subway system in NY. When we upgraded to transporting our guests in cabs, we were shocked to learn how hard it is to get a taxi that is accessible. NYC will have a new fleet of more accessible cabs by 2016 - until then, we wait.
4. In the full spectrum of disabilities exhibited in the festival, we show films on the topic of developmental disabilities. Autism is currently a popular theme in that field. One year, our closing night film was about two non-verbal men on the autistic spectrum. We had the protagonists there for the screening with their caregivers. If you saw these men while walking down the street, you might consider crossing to the other side. They make erratic sounds and will never make eye contact or interact within society's norm. However, both of these men are highly intelligent and expressive in their own forms. They typed answers on a screen and communicated with the audience. When a kid asked why the caretakers need to keep touching the arm of one of the protagonists, the protagonist answered with unbelievable self-awareness, "I am constantly fighting the urge to stop typing." It was breathtaking to witness such insight into the world of autism and until this day members of the audience will tell me how that night forever changed them.
I wonder what I will learn this year at the 6th annual ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival but have no doubt it will continue to change me.
ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival takes place March 6-11 in New York.