ReelAbilities Film Festival shines light on the disabled

Melissa Stockwell is a main character in "Warrior Champions," one of the films shown at ReelAbilities.
Melissa Stockwell is a main character in "Warrior Champions," one of the films shown at ReelAbilities.
Posted: June 01, 2012

Sunday is the start of Philadelphia’s first ReelAbilities Disabilities Film Festival.

The premise of the festival is not only to share the background, stories and suffering often faced by people with disabilities, but to serve as an outlet for them to produce works of their own.

Selected by a committee of about 20 people, the films are almost entirely from the ReelAbilities library. As a group, the committee tried to look at each film and agree that it was interesting and that a strong-enough message was delivered. Additionally, the committee had to make sure that professionals could facilitate — and add to — post-film discussions.

After each film will be a Q&A led by guest speakers including Richard Bernstein, a civil-rights lawyer, athlete, avid disabled-rights advocate and a man who has been blind since birth; Bud Clayman, a former Temple University radio-television-film student who has been diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses over the years who now acts as a director, writer and mental-health advocate; Courtney Bent, an award-winning photographer; and Peter Gerhardt, chairman of the scientific council for the Organization for Autism Research.

Initiated in 2007 in New York — which will host its fourth annual festival this year — ReelAbilities was founded on the basis of a vision of "promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities," according to its website.

In Philadelphia, the Venture Philanthropy Partnership (VPP) identified a need for more special-needs education and teamed up with a consultant from Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) of Greater Philadelphia. They began to send a representative out to social-service locations, suggesting what they wanted, and trying to start initiatives and developments for special needs.

VPP had a competitive grant, which ultimately went to JFCS. That grant funds, as well as a phone line, and intensive-care management for those with special needs.

The JFCS hopes that hosting a ReelAbilities Festival will generate revenue to help sustain the website.

"[The festival is] a good platform to have a conversation, and also for the revenue generation," said Sherrie Eisman, director of collaboration and partnership in the Center for Special Needs at JFCS.

Planning for the event started in the fall, said Eisman. "We’ve been working on this for a while."

Philadelphia is now among the cities to offer this opportunity to the disabled — Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus, Houston, New York, Richmond and Washington.

"Our hope is that by raising awareness, we — in some small measure — can increase acceptance," Eisman said.

Although each city varies, Eisman and her team hope to generate between $40,000 and $45,000, much of which they have already raised from sponsors. "We need to raise awareness of what it means to live in our community with one or multiple disabilities," she said.

"Our goal is for everyone to function to the fullest extent possible; at home, [at] school and in the community," said Eisman. “We need to give those with disabilities the tools to be as independent as possible. Those with disabilities need friends at school and at home, they need jobs and places to live — just like all of us, they need to be part of a community. n

For the full schedule of events, visit:

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