ReelAbilities New York Director on the State of Disability Inclusion and Changes Over the Fest’s 15 Years

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the ReelAbilities Film Festival New York, one of the country’s — and world’s — most accessible annual events. Founded in 2007 by Anita Altman and Isaac Zablocki, the festival was the first of its kind to curate and screen award-winning films by, about and for people with disabilities.

Now, more than a decade and a half later, ReelAbilities New York has become an example of how festivals and their films can reach the widest audience, expanding not only the festival itself into various other iterations across the U.S. and globe, but launching the ReelAbilities Industry Summit.

The organization has helped raise the bar on what audiences expect from a disability-centric narrative and the venues that distribute them amid rapid changes in accessible technology and an industry increasingly interested in new ways of partnering with and appealing to the disability community.

It’s part of a larger shift in Hollywood, with years of activism and awareness efforts having resulted in incremental changes tied to the real delivery of inclusion and representation. The global pandemic — an event that illustrated the ways that accessibility can benefit everyone — has also served as an inadvertent part of this evolution, as well.

Ahead of the 2023 festival’s April 27 kickoff, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Zablocki, who serves as the New York Festival’s director, about the state of disability inclusion in Hollywood, how the festival works to be so accessible and whether pandemic changes on the circuit are here to stay.

You’ve been running the New York iteration of this festival now for 15 years. A lot has changed in the ways we talk about disability. What are some things that have changed at or about the festival?

I’d like to take all the credit for the changes, but it’s honestly been a team effort that has gone on from before ReelAbilities existed and continues really with both people from inside the disability community and general diversity and inclusion efforts that are out there. I look back at year one of the festival and I love all of our films, and I know it was a different time, but sometimes I say, “Oh, we would not show that today. We would not show that in that way today.” We have grown so much and we’ve kept our ear to the ground in terms of where the community is over 15 years. For example, we’ve always used the word disability, but sometimes we would throw in the word different-ability, too, because we’re trying to reach two different audiences. We’re reaching the audience of the choir who’s already claimed their disability, and those who are simply coming because they want to see a great film and will inadvertently learn that they are connected to the disability community through that film. Some people at the beginning were very uncomfortable with [disability as a] term. Even people from the disability community came to us saying we don’t want to use the word disability. I think that’s something that’s turned on its head. I’m a person-first person — so it’s not necessarily how I define myself, but I’m proud to see that people are defining themselves that way.

In terms of accessibility, that’s also something that’s grown over the years. I remember our first year — we had very limited budgets — we would only audio describe films that had to do with the blind community or by request. And there was a lack of audio describers in the city. We had to bring in somebody from D.C. to train more people that were then able to provide audio descriptions for our films. That’s completely changed. Now we can outsource it and it’s a relatively simpler process. By a few years in, we said we have to make all of our films audio described so people don’t have to request it. It was a dramatic change for ReelAbilities and it’s something that I’ve tried to teach other organizations to do to create an environment where it’s not a special request. It’s about having full access for everybody so everybody can attend and doesn’t have to ask if this festival or film is OK for me. That’s something that we’re really proud of and worked really hard to give credit to those who got us there in terms of the funding and the resources. It’s a lot of work, I don’t deny it, and it’s costly. But it’s something that is crucial to us — being a fully accessible festival. And we’ve only taken the bar up.

What are you seeing at large in Hollywood in terms of representation?

In terms of Hollywood and media in general, we’re experiencing a revolution. Media is being more inclusive at the moment and disability is definitely — finally — on the agenda. I’ll remind you of a time when The [Film] Academy put out a list of their diversity efforts and originally excluded disability. They went back and changed it and I believe made up for it and I think CODA represents that a little bit. But there was definitely a time when disability wasn’t even on the list of how to be inclusive in film. And that’s come a long way and it comes on different levels. It comes both in the filmmaking process — sets are starting to have more and more Accessibility Coordinators on the sets — to how films are being presented, distributed, cast and put together. The most important thing for me, actually, is to have people with disabilities involved in the creative process, both for films that are not about disability at all, but especially in films about disability. Because I feel like that’s really where the cultural change will happen — when stories are really being told by people with disabilities.

There was a time in Hollywood when basically any film featuring characters with disabilities or about disability was almost exclusively being told or starred in by non-disabled people. In terms of what you’re seeing widely now, is there a shift toward stories centering people with disabilities on and offscreen?

CODA is the easy example, though, I would like a film completely made, produced, starring people with disabilities and we’ve had that with Best Summer Ever. It’s on Hulu so it got a mainstream release. It’s possibly not artistically on the same level as CODA, but it’s definitely a film that is an example of doing it right. So I’d like to think that there’s a change. I’d like to think that today people will think twice about casting inauthentically. It’s also how disabilities are represented and presented in the storytelling. What Hollywood has done, unfortunately, is often not include and, when it did include, did damage. It didn’t necessarily tell the stories in ways that were helpful for the disability community. The example that I like to go to is Rain Man and the damage that did to the autistic community. You mention you’re autistic and half the world thinks you can count a matchbox when it falls on the floor. Obviously, that’s one story, and every story is different, but there was not the best representation of disability. Then going about it inauthentically really just left out people with disabilities to have opportunities to be on film.

I think that Hollywood, in many ways, should show us what our world looks like, but doesn’t always give the best, most inclusive picture in terms of disability. But hiring an actor who possibly looks a little different, acts a little different, is neurodivergent is such an important thing. And, I mean, I’m not a purist either when it comes to authentic casting. I think there are some roles that can’t be cast authentically. For example, if somebody’s going to play someone with aphasia — we know from Bruce Willis now what aphasia is and what that entails. Still, the efforts need to be there and I think members of the community need to be a part of that creative process — if it’s acting, if it’s directing, if it’s writing — and making decisions so that the representation is actually not harmful to the community.

You brought up autism, which is a community that feels like it’s getting more representation in film. Similarly, the Deaf community and those who are blind. But there also seem to be some communities under the disability umbrella — like facial differences, ADHD, diabetes — that aren’t getting as much screen time. What conditions and communities are you seeing representation increase for?

I’ve done this informal study with the films submitted to the festival in terms of what are the most prominent disabilities that are represented. It’s deafness. My theory on that is because it’s so visual and good film is visual. There’s so much potential there in terms of acting. The other one is autism, which wasn’t always the case, but it’s been on the rise. Cerebral palsy also gets a lot of attention. With ReelAbilities, people always asked me, “Is this considered a disability for your festival?” Sometimes I’ll see a film and go, “Hey, that’s a great film for ReelAbilities,” and they’ll say, “Oh, it’s a disability film? I didn’t even realize.” They don’t even categorize themselves. I saw a film recently about diabetes and it was like, “Yeah, of course.” Of course, it’s also about how it’s sold. It depends on what you focus on. Is a film about cancer necessarily a fit for our festival? If it’s about disability, then yes. If it’s about the person, that’s what we want to see. If it’s about the blood cells, then possibly not. So we try to cast a really wide net. This year, we have a film about Lyme disease. Some might question if that’s a disability. There’s no question for us. We are trying to include as many unique disabilities, too. We try to keep a Crumpa within our very tough selection process. We can’t show all of our movies about the Deaf community, the autistic community and cerebral palsy. We want to include as many as possible. So we try to diversify and have invisible and visible disabilities. But not every year do we get a film about everything. As somebody who’s very close to the learning disability world and to the hearing loss world, these are topics that I’m constantly looking to explore, and not necessarily always finding the quality films that we should present.

Festivals can ultimately turn off or away people with disabilities because they physically can’t access the programming. With conversations in Hollywood around disability growing, are you — as one of the most accessible film festivals — hearing more from other fests about how to do better?

On a weekly basis. I’m part of a group that talks about how to raise the standard for other festivals, so we’re helping train other festivals. The really interesting thing is they all come with good intentions, and a lot of hopes and say, “Teach us everything. Tell us how to do it.” Then when it comes down to it, they do maybe a sliver — they take one thing from what I mentioned. “We’ll fix that pothole so people can come in.” That’s often, unfortunately, the case and the reality of budgets. That’s going to be a setback because the community has been rejected from festivals for so many years. I don’t know what’s better. Now many are claiming they’re fully accessible and there are festivals that try their hardest to be fully accessible, but they’re not. What does that mean for people with disabilities? Are we going to be able to feel like we can show up and it will be captioned; it will be audio described; it will have full access? Most festivals are not there yet. I rarely — rarely — come across one that does it to the level of ReelAbilities. There’s a cultural change that needs to happen. I’m thinking about it in the movie theaters — everywhere. We need to see absolute inclusion. One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that it’s not just about the universal design, which we aim for so everyone can just come in. It’s also about individual design.

In the last couple of years that we’ve been back in person, we’ve set up a desk that is there if you need something specific. This year, we’re going to have different cards for better communication for somebody who might not be verbal. Last year we started a quiet space for people who if they’re overstimulated can find some comfort, which is important. We sometimes even do specific screenings with the lights not completely off for those who might feel more comfortable. We want to find ways to make sure that everybody can feel a part of this, request what they need and get the information. But that’s something that I think every festival needs to think of and it takes resources. It’s not just about checking a box. It’s really diving in there and making a change. Then it’s about letting people know. I hear this constantly from places that we’ve worked with, that yeah, they made everything fully accessible, but nobody showed up from the community. I explain that there’s marketing that needs to happen correctly, and that’s why ReelAbilities creates partnerships with organizations that serve the various communities that we want to bring these films to. But, also, it’s about giving it time and knowing that this is 33 years of the ADA and being excluded despite having the laws in place. It’s going to take some time until everybody feels comfortable to attend.

You mentioned the budget earlier in our conversation. “We don’t have the money” is something I frequently hear from disability inclusion advocates as the reason their requests are met with a no. But you meet these asks every year. Can you talk about how you do it?

I mean, we have a budget for it every year. I hold the reins a little bit at first until I see that we can actually get there, but we get there. And we get to that point in the budget a week before the festival, where we’re capped. But we don’t want to say no, and if that means we’re going to get into the red a little bit, we’ll do that because accessibility is more important to us. We luckily have — and we work very hard on this every year — amazing sponsors and partners who come on board to make it happen both in-kind and with budget. I’m sure we put more towards accessibility than most festivals do. I do wonder if the big festivals, just because they’re so much larger than us, have as big of a budget for accessibility. But we definitely have the largest percentage of a budget. I’d say close to 50 percent of our budget goes to accessibility alone. That’s something that we’re committed to. But every year, I’m nervous. It’s raising those funds from the beginning and just hoping that you’ll be able to. There’s also just keeping an attitude of “Yes.”

There’s also, for people outside the festival world, a little ambiguity about who decides the level of accessibility at a screening. Are you working with producers or distributors on that or is the festival making all the calls? And has anyone ever turned down more accessibility?

That’s a really great question. We haven’t had it yet. And they can say that, but I would really fight them on it. I think people know by now coming into ReelAbilities that you’re getting captions, you’re getting audio description. We’re going to make this as accessible as possible. When somebody asks, “Can we make this even more accessible? Can we do the audio description live in the theater?” — again, discuss it with them. We just recently did it but I wouldn’t do that for every film. It’s challenging for most films. But there’s definitely a lot we give all of the films that come in. For those that don’t have audio descriptions or captions, we create them for them and give them as a present. Then we say to them, “Please use this as much as possible.” Here’s the real problem. It’s mostly not that they’re going to tell us, “We don’t want a screen with captions or with open captions.” It’s the film festivals that are going to say, “We don’t screen with open captions.”

I want filmmakers to start saying, “You want to screen my film, you’re screening it with open captions.” Unfortunately, it will get them rejected from some festivals. But it’s not about one film. It’s about the festival realizing we could do this for all of our films. We need to put that there for absolutely every film. What we try to do is a partnership with the filmmakers and with the distributors — whoever we’re involved with. I make the speech every year, saying, “Take these films and ask at your next film festival to use the captions; to use the audio description.” Not everybody has the systems, especially at some of the smaller film festivals, to run it correctly. But that’s something that I think technology is making it a little easier. In the old days, to get audio description before DCP where you can have it as an inserted file that you could choose to include or not, we would have to play the audio description on a separate DVD, so it can be transmitted at the same time. It was wild.

How does this work in terms of your theatrical locations?

Again, we try to raise the bar on that. When we choose a [theater] location, I think about what’s the closest accessible station? Is the station there accessible? New York is rough. In the past, we used to have over 40 locations, and I will say that not all of them were to level of accessibility that we hold today. And following the pandemic, we learned about having the festival virtually, which I hope we can continue as long as possible. Even today, we hear from people saying that they’re not going to movies in the movie theater. This allowed us to also cut down on locations. Now if somebody says, “I can’t get to you because I live on the end of Staten Island,” we say, “OK, well, you can watch virtually.” I don’t think virtual replaces the in-person experience, but it’s something. In terms of our locations, not every one has the same standard, but we’ve raised the bar to make sure that they can offer everything that ReelAbilities really wants to offer. Our main location is at the JCC Manhattan and that has no stairs, no backway entrance to get down to the theater. You enter with everyone. The most important thing I find at any location, beyond the the physicality, is the attitude of location. Are you looking to help? Is a person with a disability something that is aggravating you? Or is this an opportunity to do your best and to put your best foot forward?

The pandemic really opened up the possibility of more festival accessibility. Do you feel like most festivals are sticking with the measures they took during the pandemic or are they walking those back?

I think most folks don’t want to stick with it. It’s going to come down to, honestly, the distributors and the rights holders and if they’re going to say having something virtual is still OK. Our first year, not every film was willing to be virtual. They were so nervous about pirating. Now, throughout the pandemic, everybody came to it. It was the obvious [choice]. I see the tone changing back, but we keep fighting for it. We had no question that this year we wanted to make it fully virtual and in person. And the demands have come in. The disability community is so impacted by COVID. This is the community that is not going back in person so quickly. So we want to make sure that those people can access the festival, and I hope to do it as long as possible because it’s amazing accessibility. It’s work. It’s not a little addition. It’s like running two festivals at the same time, but we’re willing meet that challenge.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The ReelAbilities Film Festival New York runs April 27 through May 2.

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