Conversation About Chicago Documentaries and Disability Review - An American Disabilities Act at 25 Event

Having worked individuals who had many kinds of physical challenges in an educational setting for many years, I was curious about a program honoring the American Disabilities Act (ADA) at 25, which was held at Access Living.


The crowd gathers for to see the films

The filmmakers behind four classic documentaries about disability, made right here in Chicago greeted a room filled with people who recognized what a special event this would be. Attendees had varying perspectives, some interested in making documentaries, some in gaining a better understanding of the interaction of disabilities and the general population, while others knew someone involved in the program.


First panel

This program offered the opportunity to see clips from several films the co-hosts value.  The Reel-Abilities Film Festival from September 9-13th, 2015 had restrictions that did not allow the films shown this evening to be included.  However, some of the films discussed this evening, have stood the test of time and some have been used in classes for high school and college students often as a part of classes in making a film.  There was only time to see segments of these films but I would really like to see the full-length film of all of them.


I found two of the films available nearby. “Refrigerator Mothers” was available at the Wilmette Library and “When Billy Broke His Head” is available at the Niles Library and was requested for me by the Wilmette Library.  


Capturing the perfect blend of an able bodied dancer and wheelchair bound partner

Introductions and questions were offered by co-hosts Carrie Sandahl (of Bodies of Work) and Matt Lauterbach (of ReelAbilities Chicago). Questions were incisive and the conversations with the creative minds behind the camera offered insights about the screen excerpts from these fascinating films were shown.



Access Living events


“When Billy Broke His Head” (1995) – Director and Editor David Simpson discussed how he teamed up with activist-writer Billy Golfus, and what he learned from making the film. David’s story was fascinating offering a view of a lengthy and complicated project. This was a special 20th Anniversary event!


“Refrigerator Mothers” (2002) – Producer JJ Hanley (of the disability awareness organization, JJ’s List) discussed her personal interest in exploring the traumatic legacy of blame, guilt and self-doubt experienced by parents of children with autism. Remembering this period of time well, I was intrigued by the subject matter and awed by the skill and sensitivity shown in the clips.  I plan to watch this entire movie soon.


“Doin’ It: Sex, Disability & Videotape” (2007) – Playwright-activist Susan Nussbaum and filmmaker Salome Chasnoff shared behind-the-scenes insights into this creative collaboration with the Empowered FeFes, a support and action group for young women with disabilities. The stories that Susan and Salome shared were so frank and so funny they brought down the house.


“The Paper Mirror” (2012) – Local visual artist Riva Lehrer and Charissa King-O’brien discussed their collaboration with graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, which is featured in this short documentary, as well as her move from art focusing on disabilities into other subjects. This is available on Amazon  

A short clip about this can be seen here.



This was an ADA 25 Chicago presentation, in collaboration with Kartemquin Films.


A wall of riches

A quick word about Access Living:  “Established in 1980, Access Living is a change agent committed to fostering an inclusive society that enables Chicagoans with disabilities to live fully–engaged and self–directed lives. Nationally recognized as a leading force in the disability advocacy community, Access Living challenges stereotypes, protects civil rights and champions social reform.”



Photos: B. Keer




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