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The ReelAbilities Film Festival: Growing Through Inclusion



Films are enjoyed as a form of entertainment and escape, with audiences often identifying with what they see and who they see on screen. Therefore, the representation of all individuals is important. Enter ReelAbilities.

The ReelAbilities Film Festival is the largest festival in the United States dedicated to raising awareness and appreciation for the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with disabilities. Founded in New York in 2007, the festival showcases award-winning films by and about people with disabilities. Post-screening discussions and other engaging programs bring the community together to explore, discuss, embrace and celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience. Initiated in New York at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and founded by Anita Altman and Isaac Zablocki, the festival was the first of its kind to feature a series of its kind. As the festival progresses, screenings appear in multiple venues, some are now followed by discussions that engage the community in promoting inclusion and celebrating diversity, while providing accessible conditions to meet varied needs of this multilevel society.

Why is this festival necessary? It is estimated that 1.3 billion people – or 16% of the world’s population – currently live with a significant disability. And this number is increasing along with the growth of non-communicable diseases, as well as the longevity of life. people living longer. Currently, as many as 1 in 4 adults (26%) in the United States have some form of disability.

Yet, according to Isaac Zablocki, director and co-founder of the New York ReelAbilities Film Festival, “Disability is always on the margins. There is so much stigma, abuse and lack of inclusion that it is crucial that new, more inclusive and better portrayed stories are told and that people overcome their biases and see that there is more than meets the eye. Hollywood has to offer. “, Zablocki continues, “we hope to bring disability to the general public and create fair conditions, where there is room for everyone”.

With a growing disabled population, it’s no wonder ReelAbilities has expanded to many more cities, states and countries. Current locations include Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Columbus Ohio, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Jersey, New York, Northern Virginia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Richmond, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Toronto, Canada.

Now in his 15’se year, the Festival has a little something for everyone with short narrative, animated, family and documentary films, narrative feature films, full-length documentaries, question and answer sessions, live streams and panel discussions. These films also encompass a wide range of disabilities such as, but not limited to: spinal cord injury, mobility impairment, autism, hard of hearing/deaf, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder , ADHD, Down Syndrome, ALS and Tiny People.

Why is Reelabilities New York important to the community? “ReelAbilities is the largest disability arts event in town and really brings the community together. Not only does this give the disability community a space to gather and be celebrated, but it also brings in people from outside the community to fill in the gaps in our society, adds Zablocki. “We are also raising the standard and helping to shape new levels of accessibility that ripples through all access work done around the world. Finally, these films must be seen. The New York community, as progressive as it is, does not see enough quality disability inclusion on screen, and without ReelAbilities, many of these films would not be seen.”

Judith Heummann

The 2023 Festival also paid special tribute to Judith Heumann who, according to the Washington Post, was the mother of disability rights – and she’s a badass. Died in Washington, DC on the afternoon of March 4, 2023. Judy was at the forefront of major disability rights protests, helped pass disability rights legislation disabilities, founded national and international disability rights organizations, held high-level positions in the federal government, co-wrote his memoirs, Being Heumannand its Young Adult version, rolling warriorand was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film, Crip Camp: a revolution for people with disabilities. Judy has been instrumental in the development and implementation of national disability rights legislation, including Section 504, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act ( ADA), the Rehabilitation Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. From 2002 to 2006, she served as the first Disability and Development Advisor at the World Bank, and from 2010 to 2017, under the Obama administration, she served as the Department’s first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. of American state. She was also named the first director of the Department of Disability Services in Washington, DC. For a concise yet humorous look at the 504 Sit In & more information on Judith Heumann, check out this additional link: https://www.cc.com/video/2p86bg/drunk-history-judy-heumann-fights-for -people -handicapped

Other films that have caught particular attention include:

ReelAbilities’ Short Blocks known as ReelShorts, from the Family Friend Block for empowering children, to the witty version of “Papageno” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”

The documentary feature film, No ordinary campaign, follows the journey of White House power couple Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya, who found their world turned upside down by Brian’s ALS diagnosis at age 37, the same day they brought their second daughter home from the hospital. Faced with a brutal illness that threatens to take everything from them, Brian and Sandra embark on a journey to reclaim their future and make a difference for millions of people seeking to have their voices heard in a failing healthcare system.

Meg Zucker, who was born with a finger on each hand, shortened forearms and a deformed toe on each foot caused by a genetic condition called ectrodactyly, discussed her book, Born Extraordinary: Empowering Children With Differences and Disabilities, via a live stream where she talked about parents swallowing their pride, not being too overprotective, and the phrase her parents used: “Let go and let it be.” –Meg Zucker

Although most of them can be labeled by society as “disabled” films, after watching many films online, they have been shown to be more about human experience than disability. Zablocki summed it up: “Conclusion: Films are an easily accessible art form, and we choose films that speak broadly and have superior production quality. Good stories speak universally and can touch anyone. We hope people will come for the films and stay for the impact.”

To see the list of upcoming festivals, click here.

About the Author: Dawn Grabowski is a member of the Loreen Arbus Accessibility is Fundamental program, a fellowship created with Women’s eNews to train women with disabilities as professional journalists so they can write, research and report on the most critical issues impacting the community. people with disabilities. Dawn is also an actress, filmmaker, content creator, speaker, voice-over artist, producer, and stand-up comedian because she’s not qualified to stand. born with Central – Nerve Disorder Cerebral Palsy, the industry and the world label her as a person/performer with a disability (PWD), but she thinks the labels are for the pots and not for the people. IG handle: @grabowskidawn


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