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Column | Caitlin Clark adapts to life in the WNBA
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Column | Caitlin Clark adapts to life in the WNBA
Column | Caitlin Clark adapts to life in the WNBA
By James Carter, Staff Writer • June 20, 2024
Opinion | NHL needs to bring specialty jerseys back
By Jameson Keebler, Senior Staff Columnist • June 19, 2024
Opinion | Hold your elected officials morally responsible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 18, 2024

‘Representation is so important’: ReelAbilities independent film festival showcases stories of people with disabilities

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Film Pittsburgh Screenshot.

In most movie theaters, many people with disabilities will often find themselves neither represented on the big screen nor in the audience. But Pittsburgh’s iteration of an international film festival aiming to showcase the stories of people with disabilities hopes to lead the way towards changing the public’s awareness through representation in art. 

Film Pittsburgh, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that supports independent filmmakers, hosted its 11th annual ReelAbilities festival at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse from Sept. 7-13. The 2023 festival included a mix of virtual and in-person screenings where audiences attended post-film Q&As with filmmakers and afterparties. 

Through a mix of education and entertainment, the festival focused on highlighting the experiences of people living with disabilities and disabled artists. In doing so, Film Pittsburgh executive director Kathryn Spitz Cohan says she believes the festival is having powerful impacts on its attendees. 

“For me, it’s about seeing people, talking to people about the films and how impactful, how life-changing and meaningful they are,” said Spitz Cohan. 

In itstheir film selection, Film Pittsburgh strived for diversity in many areas, including length, type of film, where the film was based and the disability represented, taking audiences everywhere from Poland to Pitt. 

As part of their short film block on Friday, ReelAbilities showed the documentary “Bumps in the Road” that takes place at Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Lab. In the short film, producers Rachel Kittner and Alex Halpern explore the work of HERL’s lead scientist, Pitt professor Rory Cooper, as he heads a team of wheelchair-using engineers who are advancing the development of adaptive wheelchair technology.

Cooper, who is a longtime supporter of ReelAbilities and helped HERL to host sections of the festival in 2014, believes “Bumps in the Road” can also start conversations about people with disabilities by looping the public in on science that can deeply benefit wheelchair users. 

“It’s great to see something like this [ReelAbilities] in the city of Pittsburgh, and it’s empowering for people with disabilities, and it’s educational for the community as a whole,” Cooper said. “Science is changing. We have to communicate what we do —, not only to our peers, but we have to explain it to the community so we can broaden the impact of our work.”

Cooper added that he hopes the short film can inspire students in Pittsburgh to consider joining similar efforts in their careers. 

“I hope that it gets people who don’t have a disability to get a bit of a better understanding about people with disabilities and the importance of technology and creating opportunities for people with disabilities to learn and work,” Cooper said. “And for those with disabilities, hopefully it provides a little motivation to help them achieve their goals.”

Regardless of the differences between films, Spitz Cohan said Film Pittsburgh aimed to prioritize two things — great filmmaking and disability representation, the latter of which she said is immeasurably valuable to the disabled community. 

“Representation is so important,” Spitz Cohan said. “It’s so important when you go to see a film and you identify with somebody on the screen. The films are so inclusive.” 

However, when it comes to giving people with disabilities this representation, Spitz Cohan feels mainstream cinema is not stepping up to the plate.

“For people with disabilities, the number of roles in Hollywood films where they can see themselves or somebody like them, it’s almost nonexistent,” Spitz Cohan added. “It is truly an amazing thing for people living with a disability to see themselves.”

Attendees echoed Spitz Cohan’s sentiment. Audience member Amallia Rascoe, a senior legal studies major at Drexel University, said she appreciated how the disability representation at ReelAbilities went beyond surface-level narratives about disabled people she sees in the media.

Following the Saturday screening of “Abled: The Blake Leeper Story,” a documentary about a paralympic athlete battling bias against disabled athletes in the sports world, Rascoe said she admired that the portrayal of people with disabilities did not rely on pity.

“I love seeing disabled people in any sort of way as not a pity story, but as a story of growth and strength, because I feel like so much in society, when you look at people who are disabled, people want to pity them,” said Rascoe. “But [disabled people] want to be treated with respect.” 

Blake Leeper, the subject of the documentary, addressed the audience live on Zoom in a Q&A session after the screening. He said being a strong individual with personal agency, even in the face of discrimination, is a core part of his values.

“What I appreciate about the film is that it shows the true essence of life. Sometimes in life you give it your all, and it still might not work out. But what are you gonna do after you get the “no”? After they deny you — even though you deserve your full rights,” said Leeper. “This one event is not gonna stop who I am and what I stand for as a disabled man.”

About the Contributor
Tanya Babbar, Senior Staff Writer
Tanya Babbar is a junior English nonfiction writing major with a minor in creative writing. In her free time, she likes to roller skate, read on the front porch, talk about her cat Juppi and imagine herself as the Walmart Joan Didion of South Oakland.