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Reel Abilities Film Festival: Diversity includes disability too

Chicago Tribune - 8/9/2019

Aug. 8--Remember James Cameron's 2009 film "Avatar?" Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) plays a paralyzed former Marine who becomes mobile again through human/Na'vi hybrid links, a mind/body connection to move around the outpost Pandora.

Grishma Shah, an artist, filmmaker and community psychology doctoral candidate at National Louis University, recalls seeing the popular film and thinking media tends to show people with visible disabilities as "fixable."

And that's just the roles in which a disability is visible. But what about an invisible disability?

"I recently did a podcast with CinemaJaw where we talked about the five top actors or actresses with a disability, and one of the top actors was Ryan Gosling. Ryan Gosling has ADHD, a neurodevelopmental condition that is 'invisible,'" Shah said. "So how does that change the way you see this person? Depending on the person that you ask, it may or may not change, but I feel that media has done this fabulous job of sort of putting pictures in our mind about how a person with a disability, especially a physical disability which is visible is kind of 'broken' and needs to be fixed."

As co-director of the Chicago ReelAbilities Film Festival (RAFF), Shah hopes this year's festival theme of "Diversify Diversity" widens the lens of disability from a medical model to a more human one -- one where you're a person with multiple identities, disability being one of those identities.

"I believe as a global society, we need to see disability as part of diversity and it needs to be everywhere -- from print to entertainment and everything in between because we as human beings are so complex and nuanced," she said. "You just don't want to see disability in one way because it's like saying all women are this way and it's not true. There are so many nuances to it."

A recent Michigan State University study revealed biases people have toward the disabled (aka "ableism") -- showing biases increase with age and over time, but people are less likely to show those biases publicly. From 2014 to 2017, the research surveyed 300,000 U.S. adults (ages 18- to 90), 15% of which classified themselves as having a disability. William Chopik, lead author of the study and Michigan State University assistant professor of psychology, said few people people are willing to acknowledge their bias toward people with disabilities since the topic is such a sensitive, uncomfortable one for many to talk about. He added that there hasn't been much work done on why people have these different views.

"There (were) a lot of people interested learning about their own bias," he said about the data. "There's definitely this ambivalence that people with hidden disabilities have in negotiating their identity: 'Who am I in the world? People don't really see me as a person with a disability. But I struggle with a lot of things at the same time.' That's the fascinating thing that we don't know a ton about."

Presented by Backbones, a local nonprofit serving people with spinal cord injuries, the ReelAbilities Film Festival is in its third year in Chicago. A variety of films, workshops, panels and arts programming will be screened and held at different venues in Chicago every Thursday this month.

According to Reveca Torres, RAFF Chicago's executive director, often times people might think "that's disability stuff, that doesn't relate to me," but maybe they can relate to the storytelling.

"Disability is being left out of that word diversity and inclusion," she said. "Our goal is to bring that awareness to Chicago and show the human experience of disability through film. Hopefully that will change some perceptions about what people think of what living with a disability is like."

Her favorite 2019 film of the fest is "Hearts of Glass" a documentary on the vertical, hyrdoponic greenhouse startup Vertical Harvest in Wyoming that employs people with disabilities. (It screens on Aug. 15 at the Chicago Cultural Center with a question and answer session with the filmmaker following). Torres said the film shows how food, poverty, housing and employment are related. Connection and community are key. A main finding in the MSU study was that having contact with somebody with a disability significantly lowers bias and prejudice.

"We want to sort of educate people by saying, 'Hey, if you interact with these people, you start to see them as people and your bias tends to go down,'" Chopik said. "The idea is that maybe we can become a little bit better in making society a little more accessible so we can have those interactions."

"The MSU study talks about as you interact more with a stigmatized group, you can potentially have more positive experiences with them and your attitude changes and you see them in a different light," Shah added. "It's about that different light. My hope is that audiences get to experience new light about diversity through storytelling. Diversity for me is a spectrum and encompasses the multiple identities whether its ability, gender identity, color, race, ethnicity, spirituality, etc., it's about experiencing the humanity through the stories."

ReelAbilities events are free. Attendees can request wheelchair seating, audio description, captioning or a sign language interpreter when RSVP-ing for events. Submit requests at least three days in advance to guarantee fulfillment. "Bottom Dollars," a film about the low wages paid to those with disabilities runs Thursday at Victory Gardens Theater at 6:30 p.m. A space for potential employees and employers to network will be provided after the film.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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(c)2019 the Chicago Tribune

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