The fifth annual ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival opened last Thursday night at The JCC in Manhattan in New York City. This is the largest disability film festival in the country and runs in 24 locations throughout New York with over 90 local partners, as well as in 13 major cities across America. This is a groundbreaking festival on many levels, from its inclusive mission to how the festival makes its film selections. ReelAbilities presents films by and about people with disabilities that would be attractive to the mainstream. They further engage with audiance with coversations and special events. There is no other festival doing what this festival does. With the goal to bringing the community together around the topic of disabilities, ReelAbilities does not ask the community to come to it, the mountain goes to Muhammad. The festival runs in a record number of venues in every borough and in Long Island and Westchester. But running such a festival in New York does not always make accessibility easy.
ReelAbilities presents top-quality films that are rarely screened in the United States. The films selected are not necessarily about disability, but rather with disability as an element in the film. As a highly overlooked minority in American media, ReelAbilities tries to show the great films that are overlooked by mainstream media. Many of the films are premieres and cannot be seen outside of this festival, but are exceptional stories of the highest cinematic quality. The festival presents these films in an accessible manner like no other. Captions are created, as well as audio description for the visually impaired.
Many of the directors, speakers and special guests in the festival are themselves with disabilities. With over 25 festival guest speakers, more than 75 percent have disabilities. Bringing in these speakers requires extra care, such as sign-language interpretation. Many of the guest filmmakers travel with an aid or two, requiring extra travel costs and accommodations. Even arranging accessible travel both for flight accommodations and inner-city transport, is never as simple as one would imagine. All of this raises the cost of the festival and further complicates the logistics.
Roberto Perez Toledo, the director of the Spanish film Six Points About Emma, premiering at this year's festival uses a wheelchair and travels with an aid. If it was not hard enough for the director to ride the New York streets, when he arrived from his flight, the car service that was supposed to pick him up with an accessible car, failed to provide this. The result was the breaking of a wheel and of the battery case for his motorized wheelchair.
Although there is a rise in the number of accessible taxis in New York, finding an accessible car from a car service is almost impossible. The festival coordinators contacted dozens of services, often with no car available, definitely none if there is a ride needed for that same day. When Roberto needed to fix his wheelchair, he had no easy way to get to the wheelchair shop.
These frustrations are common for urban wheelchair users. One can only wonder how tourists in our fair city manage to get around? Mayor Bloomberg wrote a letter for the opening night of ReelAbilities, and said "we are working hard to ensure that disabled New Yorkers have access to everything that makes our city so great." There is clearly much work to be done.
Roberto's film, is about a blind woman, Emma, seeking to have a baby. He shows a world where people with disabilities are very human. All his characters are not all good or all bad, simply people with many imperfections. The physical or developmental disabilities in the film are noted as the least of our human imperfections. In a world filled with imperfections, it is heartbreaking to learn how hard it is for people with disabilities to maneuver through our society. So rarely are they given the opportunity to be a part, we must do better to make our cities more accessible.