Film Forward

How One Film Festival Is Working To Improve The Representation Of Disability On Screen

"ReelAbilities is more than a film festival, it is a mission."

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

When it comes todiversity in film and television, much of the conversation is focused on the representation of people of color, women, and LGBTQ people. But there's another, frequently overlooked group who continually find themselves missing or misrepresented on screen — people with disabilities.

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One film festival, called ReelAbilities, is working to change that. The event, which presents films by and about people with various disabilities, is the largest festival of its kind in the United States. It was founded in 2007 at JCC Manhattan by Anita Altman and Isaac Zablocki, and has since expanded to more than a dozen cities beyond New York, including Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago, Houston, and Toronto.

"ReelAbilities is more than a film festival, it is a mission," Zablocki told A Plus via email. "We are trying to change our society and create a more inclusive community. Film often shapes our view of society, and by showing films that change that perception, we hope to open a door for impact."

The first step is representation. The U.S. Census found in 2010 found that 18.7 percent of the population had a disability. In contrast, a study by USC Annenberg reported that only 2.4 percent of characters with speaking roles in the top 100 films of 2015 had a disability. Out of those, most were found to be either supporting (54.3 percent) or "inconsequential" (32.4 percent). There was also little intersectionality in the representation of women, minorities, or LGBTQ people with disabilities.

Zablocki mentioned these disappointing statistics to A Plus, while adding that it's not only about numbers. "Beyond that, we hope to provide a more authentic representation of people with disabilities, which is not always the case in the film industry," he shared. "We seek out responsible representations that give a more diverse and true view of the lives of people with disabilities. We especially love films that tell great stories and include actors with disabilities."

The topic of non-disabled actors playing characters with disabilities is a controversial one, with recent films such as Stronger and Wonderstruck (starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Julianne Moore as an amputee and a deaf woman, respectively) furthering the conversation around what some have called "disability drag."

As Jay Ruderman of disability rights organization the Ruderman Family Foundation told USA Today, "You're not going to see a white actor playing a black role, but it's routinely Oscar material for someone to play disability and it's inauthentic."

Zablocki told A Plus that ReelAbilities "prefers authentic representations of people with disabilities," adding, "We applaud films that select actors with disabilities, but most importantly, we make sure that the representations are done responsibly. In the last two years, 12 out of 13 of our feature films included authentic representations."

Last year's New York festival included such titles as At Eye Level, a German film about a boy who discovers his biological father has dwarfism; How Sweet the Sound: The Blind Boys of Alabama, a documentary about the Grammy-winning gospel quartet; and Kills on Wheels, a Hungarian dark comedy about a group of "wheelchair assassins." 

Many of the films featured at the festival come from foreign countries, as Zablocki explained to IndieWire in 2012, "More films are made outside of the United States on this topic," particularly in Europe, "where there's traditionally a lot of smaller films and access to government funds."

The festival goes beyond simply showing these films — it also encourages discussions after the screenings, and has welcomed special guests such as Marlee Matlin, Mark Ruffalo, William H. Macy, and RJ Mitte. Additionally, multiple steps are taken to make sure that attendees with disabilities receive an equal viewing experience.

"Every year we learn how to make our festival more accessible," Zablocki told A Plus. "We caption all of our films, create audio descriptions, provide ample wheelchair seating, ASL, and live stenography at the talkbacks and seek to accommodate all needs. There are always places to go beyond and provide better accessibility, part of that comes from listening and hearing those needs with an open mind."

For those interested in attending the festival, this year's New York event will take place from March 8 to March 14. You can also go a step further by volunteering or donating. If those aren't options, you can still show your support for better representation by doing your research and becoming a more conscious consumer.

"Moviegoers need to be selective with their viewing habits," Zablocki advised. "Support the film that includes an actor with a disability and avoid the ones that give questionable representations."

ReelAbilities joins organizations such as VisABLE People, the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, and the Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment (GADIM), which recognize inclusion, provide career opportunities for actors and filmmakers with disabilities, and work toward improved representation and acceptance — both on screen and in day-to-day life.

"Through the normalizing images we share, we hope to break taboos and change perceptions of how our community perceives people with disabilities," Zablocki said. "Our films tell universal, human stories that anyone can relate to and find a connection to. These stories often depict people with disabilities like never before and puts a spotlight on a minority that has been marginalized. We hope these gripping depictions will bring more images like this into the mainstream."

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