Episode 3 with Anita Altman Transcript
Keith: Hello, this is Keith Murfee-DeConcini and I am the host of Disability Empowerment Now. I am talking with Anita Altman, the co-founder of the ReelAbilities Film Festival. Anita, welcome to the show!
Anita: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here.
Keith: Thank you, a little background. I first became aware of ReelAbilities in 2014. When I was studying at the CUNY School of Professional Studies in their Disabilities Studies master’s program and they referred me to the JCC as an extracurricular activity and that’s how I became aware of ReelAbilities. But before we get to that, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be involved with a naturally occuring retirement community, and how that evolved or crossed over to your work with people with disabilities?
Anita: Sure, first of all, thank you for having me on your show. I for almost 30 years, was employed by an organization called UJA Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, the organization in New York. And it was actually two organizations that were founded by members of the Jewish community, the Federation being one that was much older, founded in 1917, to bring together a central organization to both plan for the needs of the community, and also to consolidate the fundraising for all of these nonprofit organizations that had been founded by Jews originally to serve Jews who are not being served by other organizations in New York.
You know, like the hospitals for in their inception. Mount Sinai and Montefiore were founded because Jewish doctors couldn’t get positions in other hospitals in the city. So many of the organizations were founded to provide both service and opportunity to members of the community, but over time, became nonsectarian and became major providers within the New York, social, and healthcare systems. I got to Federation at the end, in 1987, after having started my career as a city planner, and so my focus has been not only on individual programs, but to try and look at systems and to see how we can improve. You know, how we address problems that arise in our society.
Early in my stay at Federation, I was asked to visit a program that they had funded, whose funding was about to end it was a program down at the Penn South Co-Op, which is in Chelsea. It was built as a limited-equity cooperative for working class and middle class New Yorkers to have affordable housing. That housing, that housing development, had 2600 apartments in it. It had been built and opened in the early 1960s, it was sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Union. So it was working-class folks who were the original occupiers, shareholders in this limited equity Co-Op. And a lot of sort of white-collar civil servants, great housing complex, well maintained in a terrific location, affordable monthly maintenance charges. People remain living where they, you know, it’d be it was a very stable community, people raise their children, their children went on in their lives, and they remain living in their own homes, and wanting to and intending to stay there.
But by the middle 80s,there was a huge cohort, at some point, more than 50% of the households are headed by people who were senior citizens. And when you have that kind of concentration of elders, it often comes along with a lot of issues, social isolation, people hanging out in lobbies, people wandering and hallways, people who had been consistent, you know, consistent in their payment of their monthly carrying charges, who all of a sudden, fell far behind in paying their monthly bill. People turning on, you know, gas to cook, and forgetting and causing, you know, fires- a whole raft of issues!
The community was organized, had a board of directors, a very enlightened board of directors, who recognized that they had some real issues they were struggling with that were beyond their ability, as housing managers. Who are doing great on heat and light and maintenance of the community, but on these issues, confronting the people who live there as individuals, which was having an impact not only on the individuals and their quality of life but on the quality of life of the community as a whole. Came to the Federation and said, “we need help”. And remarkably, and miraculously, the Federation had gotten a grant to address the needs of seniors and was willing to make an investment in helping to create a response to assist this community to help sustain in a quality way, the people who were living there.
And that was the origins of what we came to call the NORC supportive service program. Penn South was, in fact, a naturally occurring retirement community because of the density and numbers of seniors who were living within a very limited area. And what came out of that investment that Federation made was a model that brought together a partnership with professional service agencies that were members of our service network, with the residents of that community, to build supportive infrastructure, organize community, generate a lot of volunteer assistance, bring in a nurse, bring in social workers to help connect people and to help support them as they were growing older and frailer.
It became a model. I mean, I did not originate it. I went down two years after it was initiated to find out how the money was used and how effective it was. And I was really bowled over by what I saw and made it sort of my personal mission to ensure that that program would survive. And over time, it became apparent to me. I had Federation commissioned a study to determine if PEN South was qualified for what we called a NORC. How many more potential NORC were there in New York City. And it turned out that there were almost 400,000 Seniors who lived in a variety of housing developments in NYCHA, New York City Housing Authority housing, who in fact, were living in a NORC but without the kinds of services that would help sustain them.
And over a very long period of time, I decided it was important to see, given the character and history of a socially conscious community of Penn south, whether the model that we developed there, in fact, could be replicated in other communities. And that led to me securing a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and with a consortium of other funders, to invest in the development of two additional supportive service programs at communities that had the same similar demographics, to Penn south. To see whether that model could work in different locales, and in fact, it did and ultimately, we went to the state legislature and created a New York state, NORC supportive service program. And five years after that we went to the New York City Government to the City Council, and secured funding and a program, so that now in New York State there are (it’s been a long time since I’ve been directly connected with the program), but I know at its height, we had over 50 communities around New York State. Primarily down here in New York City, and Nassau, and Suffolk County, who were getting State funding and or City funding for their programs. So that, you know, that was a very I spent 25 years of my life really honing, advocating, and remaining deeply connected to these programs.
Keith: It sure sounds like it!
Anita: I have a son and I used to say, on my headstone, it would say mother of Sasha and mother of the NORC supportive service program.But, in fact, I was at my position for quite a while, and I had the opportunity to meet a foundation that was forming, and that didn’t have professional help. We kind of hit it off well, they kind of liked my approach to planning and began to solicit proposals from me. And at some point early in our relationship, they said, you know, the things that we care about the most, in fact, are working with people with disabilities. Having programs that help them serve, you know, live and thrive living in a community rather than in an institutional setting. The reality was that the corpus of this money was from a couple who had passed away, who had had one child who from the time she was a baby was severely developmentally disabled and was placed in an institution where she remained for the rest of her life.
And the people who were running the Foundation who were members, you know, nieces and nephews of the couple, whose money it was felt that in the spirit of their aunt and uncle, they wanted to do something that would be a betterment-an improvement in how we, as a society, enable people with disabilities to live their lives. And so I had this great opportunity to bring together all the agencies in our network to sort of jawbone the issue of disabilities. What we would do to try first was document the work that was taking place already, which was not all that much. And trying to envision where we wanted to go with that. And I founded a task force back in 1996.
That proved to be a very important vehicle for, you know, for envisioning, for talking about what were the needs, and how we could what could be productive responses. And it was clear from nearly the beginning, that the work that we were undertaking was about not only helping to build this supportive services for individuals with disabilities, but to also enable them to participate in the larger community. And, and that our Jewish community centers, which are really multi-service organizations, literally out in communities that were all but one nonsectarian (meaning that they serve the entire community in which they were located). At that point, we had 26 Jewish community centers in from Westchester in New York City in Nassau and in Suffolk County. And they became the main setting for the kinds of programs we were developing.
And it was very exciting. I mean, autism was emerging as a very significant issue, that there were ever-increasing numbers of youngsters. And as we learned, adults on the spectrum who has never been identified. But many young children who were being early identified because of early intervention programs, and that there were, there were scant resources, either for the individual child and for their family members, you know, for their parents who were really struggling. And so it was a very opportune time, I think, for that work to begin, and it began in earnest. And I must say, the foundation that I work with the JENZB Butler Foundation, ended up spending, probably almost a half, almost $50 million over the course of the next 20 years in investments in our agencies, and also some that were outside in helping to transform the delivery of services, and an amazing opportunity.
But it also became clear to us we had a visitor actually from Israel, who joined us at a task force meeting, to really challenge us to look beyond what we were doing. And to recognize that, first of all, it was very important for us to broaden the participation of people with disabilities, on the committee itself, and all of our planning work. And also that we had to take on larger issues, the issues of societal attitudes about who people with disabilities are and opportunely, I was approached by a young woman who is making a film.
And of course, she was looking for funding, which I thought I would never be able to help her find to finish her film. But as it turned out, I was able to and that film is a film called Praying with Lior, which was about a young boy with Down Syndrome who was preparing for his bar mitzvah. And so well, it had it you know, as a Jewish setting, the film was was more complex than the preparation for a Bar Mitzvah. It was really the story of familial struggles of how families, how the family, and then the community accepted, assisted and embraced Lior. The role of community in the life of the family and particularly in the life of this young man.
So it was really that film, I would say that you know, there was like this a brainstorm that took place. And I thought wow, you know, like film is an amazing vehicle for bringing the lives of people with individuals. For many people, they really don’t know who people with this, you know, they don’t know people with disabilities. Too often, you know, people with disabilities are kind of invisible in our society. But that film would be able to bring real you know, real people and, and their stories and who and, and their humanity and their aspirations, you know, into public view and that actually was the genesis for the idea of ultimately founding a film festival.
Keith: So that is all fascinating how did you-did the JCC approach or did you approach the JCC?
Anita: No, actually it was, you know, it’s for me it’s sort of a has become legend. Because one, one hot August evening, I guess was in 2007 I got a call from a very dear friend who said, “I live on the Upper West Side, there’s a Hasidic stand-up comedian, who is appearing at Symphony Space,” (which is a cultural institution that three blocks from where we live), “and you must come and see him.” And, and so we, you know, we finished quickly finished our dinner, we went to Symphony space, we saw this young man who in fact, was very funny. And there was a reception afterward. And Gil, my partner, introduced me to a young man who he knew from the JCC, who happened to be head of the film department. And so I was introduced to Isaac’s Sibloke. I swear, the first words out of my mouth were, you know, I have a dream and that dream is to have a disabilities film festival here in New York City.
And Isaac unexpectedly, truly responded immediately and said that’s about the most important thing I can do. And so my response was alright, we’re, you know, we’re gonna do it. And if I tell you that 13 months later, we had our first annual ReelAbilities New York Disabilities Film Festival. So that’s how it began, it came about because of a chance encounter.
The reality is that the JCC is a remarkable institution, Joy Levitt, Rabbi Joy Levitt, who is the Executive Director immediately got it in a wonderful way, that this would be something that should be embraced by the community center. And so we had immediate, you know, support to go ahead with it. And actually a relatively easy, that first time easy some asks to funders to help support it. Isaac brought to the table, both the JCC and his deep knowledge and network in the film community. And I brought to the party the network of agencies, the professionals, and the community of people with disabilities. And we ended up structuring what turned out to be a relatively unusual approach to organizing a film festival. Because unlike most film festivals, this one had a very clear social mission. And that mission was to help educate and raise consciousness of the general community and to help transform societal attitudes about who people with disabilities are and that these films would be cutting edge films relatively recent films that were by people with disabilities and/or issues and subjects of you know that pertain to people with disabilities
Keith: So that’s fascinating to hear I just want to go back and just marvel about how you and Isaac were able to, a year after a chance encounter, put togethering this massive film festival that-correct me if I’m wrong-until that time had never been done before. How were you guys able to synchronize everything you needed to do to pull of the premiere year of ReelAbilities in just over a year’s time?
Anita: Well, I like to say passion goes a long way. You know, there was a lot of deep personal, you know, commitment and energy behind it. Isaac brought in a colleague to work with this woman named Ruve Turjaman, and we were like The Three Musketeers. You know, for me, it was an amazing journey, because this was not a field that I knew. And so it was a real learning experience. But it was, I mean, I will tell you that, I mean, I did an environmental scan to determine that there, there wasn’t a disabilities Film Festival. You know, in the city, there actually was one very small festival that took place one weekend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And it was only about people with intellectual disabilities, called the Sprout Film Festival.
Keith: Yes, I know of Sprout.
Anita: And we approached them and said, you know, we would love to work with you, and why don’t you join us. And they were really not interested in pursuing that. And we also met a man named Lawrence Carter long and Lawrence, who is a disabilities-
Keith: A very good friend of mine.
Anita: -And who became a very dear friend of mine, I love Lawrence. Lawrence was doing a once a month event down at NYU, called “Dis This”. And the films that he screened, were very cutting edge. And, and Lawrence absolutely jumped at the chance to work with us. He was not in any way threatened, he didn’t feel like we were stepping on anybody’s toes. He thought it was a great idea. And he was also so he joined, you know, that very first year, our effort to do this. And so we built, you know, we built connections. I also, you know, said to Isaac, we cannot do a film festival, a disability Film Festival, that is limited to only locations in Manhattan. The point of this festival is to foster community conversations and engagement. And therefore, we have an obligation to bring these films out into the New York community.
And so from its inception, we that first year, even within the 13 months that it took to put all of this together, we were in 14 different locations. Most of which I will confess, were within the Federation, network service network, you know, in different community centers. And we had one art house NYU, which was screaming that dis, you know, hosting the “DIS this” also became one of our locations. But over the years, we greatly expanded the number and type of locales so that over the years, we’ve incorporated locations, museum locations, public library locations, some of the CUNY campuses.
I must confess, we approached CUNY and the disability studies folks to try and build a better bridge, which we weren’t we did not succeed in. But there were a number of campuses that became home for screening our films, and along with a dispersal of the screening we also mandated that after each screening there would be a conversation to the best of our abilities we and our final finances, we tried to bring the filmmakers to New York during the period of the festival to participate in talkbacks. And if we couldn’t, if they were unable to do that or we couldn’t afford to bring them from far-flung places abroad, we had people who were knowledgeable in the field. Because one of the things I didn’t say is that our festival encompasses a broad range of disabilities, not only developmental disabilities, but physical disabilities. Over the years, it’s been expanded, and we’ve screened another a number of films about people with dementia. Parkinson’s has become a theme, we try and have a variety of disabilities. So inevitably, we have a film, dealing with mental health, mental illness, dealing with the hearing impaired, the visually impaired, the mobility impaired. And on and on.
I guess the other thing I am particularly proud of, with our festival is that, from the beginning, we made a commitment to make it handy, you know, disability accessible with people across the range of disabilities would be able to participate in the screenings. And so from the very beginning, we had ASL interpretation. During the talkbacks, we made sure that any locale that was being used to screen that were hosting the screenings was physically accessible. We did from our knowledge base, you know, we really endeavored to do the best we could do. However, at the end of that first festival, we heard many complaints and grievances actually, from the visually impaired community, who said, we couldn’t attend your films. I was really embarrassed. I mean, I said, I’m really sorry, I didn’t know that blind people go to the movies.
And it was there that we learned that there actually is something called Audio describing. And that tool is basically for those who are blind, who have hearing abilities. It augments whatever conversations are taking place on the screen, but literally physically describes what else is on the screen. And as it turned out, there were no trained film, audio describers, back in 2000, in New York City, working in New York City back in 2008, when we had our first annual festival.
So I was able to raise some money. We were told who the sort of audio description guru was a man named Joel Schneider. We brought Joel from Washington to New York. And we opened up training to 22 individuals, at no cost to them, to train them in the basics of audio description, with a kind of understanding that when we needed them for our festival, that they would work with us on describing our films. And if I tell you now, that at this point, all these years later, two of the people who took that basic course, have made a professional career out of film audio describing.
And also that every single film now screamed at ReelAbilities, which is this year, I should say in 2022, we will have our 14th annual festival, that every film in our festival is audio described.
Keith: How long were you actively involved with putting everything together, helping Isaac and the team manage the JCC to manage the festival? And once you left, was that hard to do? It’s such a unique and needed idea and to walk away… Was there any reservation or did you feel like when you left that you were leaving it in the most capable hands. I have met Isaac several times-
Anita: Then you know how capable he is?
Keith: -Yes, he’s not only is he capable he’s so approachable as an administrator. Yeah, I’ve enjoyed every conversation or email exchange I have had with him. So how was it?
Anita: I will tell you I have not walked away from it. When I retired from UJ Federation in 2015. One of the, you know, one of the things I remained committed to continuing my involvement in was ReelAbilities. Now, I will say that my role in ReelAbilities has changed significantly. And it’s precisely for what you identified, which is Isaac has brought and continues to bring outstanding leadership. And I will tell you that, I’ll bring you up to date on where Reel Abilities is right now. But that there is a staff in place-first of all, to do this work, you have to care passionately about it both as a, as a professional or, you know, an individual working in the film arena-And also, with this particular issue, I would say that both Isaac and Ruby tertium, who did leave before our 10th annual festival, she fell in love and moved to Portugal-became passionate advocates in the field for people with disabilities.
I think that’s, I think that’s what it takes, you know, you asked, How did you do it in 13 months? Well, we were all so excited about what we were doing and recognized that what we were doing was an important-could make an important contribution to the field. And frankly, I do feel as if our timing was, again, incredibly significant. We became, you know, I think a real part of the civil rights movement for people with disabilities, this festival.
I remain connected. I am on the screening committee, and I’m involved in helping to select next year’s films. So, there have been many changes. When we first began when we began, it was like wondering how many films we were likely to get submitted to us for a film on disabilities and actually, starting from the first year, we did have a very solid festival, but most of the films were from abroad. And in the end, it was like why am I seeing all these foreign films about you know, involving the theme of disabilities and so few made here.
And you know what the response was, it’s because in those countries there is government support for making those films. And there’s, you know, little to none here.
Keith: So now Reel Abilities certainly travels around the country. It also travels internationally, are you relieved, elated that something you helped create that was clearly a passion project-
Anita: I was deeply involved in helping to create what we originally conceived of a traveling Reel Abilities and the recognition was once you put together a festival and you bet all of these films, and we were really committed, we were clear, we didn’t want martyrdom or heroic. What we wanted that were accurately reflected were people with disabilities are. And I guess about two years. And so we thought, well, you know, once we have these films, selected, vetted, it’s easy to package it so that some other city could undertake this as well. But we were very into building our own festival, one of our funders called me, she had come back from a national conference. And she said, You know, I met this guy in Cincinnati, who seemed really interested in the festival, and I think it would be really good for you to follow up with him.
And she gave me his name and phone number. And, of course, I called him and we talked about the festival and how it started and, you know, blah, blah, blah, and, and then he said, you know, you know, what are you thinking for the future? He said because I’d really like to have Reel Abilities in Cincinnati, where I live. And I said, well, in point of fact, that’s what we would love to see, you know, we would like to see other communities, other cities around the country also have it but we can’t go in and run a festival. It really has to come from the local community. And so he said, well, why don’t you send me a proposal. And so that’s what we did. We crafted a proposal for, you know, a national Reel Abilities Film Festival. Lo and behold we got the grant. And that was the beginning of what now has really blossomed into both a national and an International Film Festival. So we are in cities across the country. And also in, we’re in Canada, in Toronto, at the film festival, up there, and also in Mexico and, and have screenings in places like Chile. And I think that the vision is that we will continue to grow the festival. And it means building partnerships, with local with film organizations that screen film to take on the responsibility of actually organizing in their city. It’s been very exciting. And it’s, you know, clearly it’s an idea that has resonated for lots of people, yes.
Keith: Wonderful stuff. Let’s talk about some of the success stories that have come from Reel Abilities. What anecdotes stand out to you?
Anita: Well, I mean, one of the things that really struck me- so let me explain with the national program, the festival staff here in New York, negotiate with either the film distributor or the filmmaker, if they still have the rights to the film, to have them included in the inventory of films that any other folks who are going to organize a film festival can choose from our already vetted list. So Reel Abilities, you can’t just say I want to do a disabilities Film Festival and I want to call it Reel Abilities. There are conditions to what you need to do in order to carry our brand and our, you know, and our reputation. And so we have, at this point, you know, hundreds of films that have been vetted, where the distributor or the filmmaker has actually agreed to a set price for the rental and has agreed for us to be able to help market their films in other communities.
For the filmmakers, I think the thing that has been most moving to me is, every year we have a lunch and when we were not doing remote film festivals, where we bring together all the people who’ve come in to participate in the screening of their films. And, I remember early on, you know, there, a filmmaker got up and said, first of all, I want to thank Reel Abilities, it’s been an extraordinary opportunity because my film has been screened in three very diverse settings. And the audience at each screening was very different and it was really exciting to actually go out into these different communities and meet people from very different backgrounds who came to it for a variety of reasons. And it was exciting for them. And they said, You know, I’ve screened in many film festivals, I’ve never had this kind of experience before.
The other thing that really stands out for me is filmmakers who said, thank you Reel Abilities, because you exist, and because we are able to show that there is a market for our films, you have helped us to get the financial backing to make our films. You’ve given us a solid argument that there are people who will come and there are venues that will screen. I think, you know, one of the other certainly early memories of the festival that were very meaningful for me was, this was a festival that was really meant to reach that larger community of individuals, of people living in an area living in our city and our metro area who didn’t necessarily have any connection to disabilities, which we knew would be a challenge, but also was an opportunity to try and broaden and raise consciousness and all the things that we wanted, and hoped to have happened as a result of the festival.
But in fact, that first year, I would say that a majority of our audience were people with disabilities. And each year thereafter, we grew the number of participants in our festivals grew have grown very substantially. And we also have the festival has fostered community communities within the disabilities community, who really every year saw this as a there’s.
A great social connection for them. People who came every year and formed really solid groups and for whom it was incredibly meaningful. So I think for you know, all of the actors in the piece, the audience, the filmmakers themselves that we’ve touched a lot of lives and I think we’ve hoped hopefully have helped changed a lot of lives as a result of this festival.
Keith: Indeed you have one of the few good things that has come out of this pandemic is the ability of film festivals to switch to remote viewing. And that I’ve-this year I’ve been to three or four different Reel Ability film festivals all over the country and in Canada. Normally, I would not have that opportunity. So a future of Reel Abilities in 2022 and 2023 as we hopefully move through the tail end of the pandemic tell me about how the film festival will reemerge. Will you keep some of the remote viewing? Or will it go back to being an exclusively in-person festival?
Anita: Well, I can speak from the experience of a film festival that happens each year at the JCC, which just concluded last week. And it’s called the Other Israel Film Festival. It was both-every screening was an in-person screening-But you also for most of the films, and I think it really depended on whether the filmmaker was willing to agree, most of the films you could also screen at home.
And my sense is that this will be the model going forward. Because I can tell you not only did it broaden our audience and make the festival accessible to a lot more people, and a lot more people with disabilities who would have difficulty attending either because they lived at a distance, or because it was really a hardship to try and get to one of the screening sites. It also made a difference in the talkbacks that we were able to do. Because as I say, we have, you know, films are screened from many different parts of the world. There’s a lot, a lot of filmmaking that takes place, you know, in Europe and abroad. And we can’t, our budget doesn’t necessarily enable us to bring all of those far-flung filmmakers to New York for a week to participate in the festival. But it did enable us last year and this year, to engage people who were related to the film to participate, irrespective of where they come from, where they live, because, they could do it straight out of their home.
And I think that that is very exciting. I mean, I think one of the upsides, one of the contributions of this pandemic is that it’s opened up a whole new world and a new way of engaging with people. I mean, I have no idea how we would have lived without Zoom and survived.
Keith: So, going outside of Reel Abilities. What should everyone know, in your opinion, what should everyone know about disability empowerment? And what are some of the myths and misconceptions around disability empowerment that you will like to dispel?
Anita: Oh, God, this is my disability, I am an aging person. No decisions without us. The notion of the direct involvement participation that people with disabilities have their own voices. I think, you know, we did encounter some resistance, you know, from parts of the disabilities community because on the face of it Isaac and I, are neurotypicals and are not ourselves struggling individually with disabilities. And so what right did we have to undertake a program like this, and, you know, in a sense, speak on behalf of the disabilities community. A position that I think is, you know is really not quite appropriate. Because over time, if one were to look now at who is involved with the festival, the level of participation with people who are directly involved in the selection of the films, and framing of programs there is a significant size-numbers of people with disabilities who are very deeply engaged with us.
Repeat your question again? Dispel some of the myths? People with disabilities are like, everybody else, except that they’re living with, you know, additional challenges, and how they can put their lives together. But in terms of aspirations to have a life, to have love in their life, to have agency in their life, to have meaningful work, to be able to, to the best of their capacity to build a, you know, have a fruitful, meaningful life for themselves is like the rest of us. I think that that does come through in our films. There are a lot of issues, and challenges that have, you know, that are still alive, significant challenges for some parts of in society for people with disabilities, like the issue of employment.
People with disabilities have probably the highest unemployment statistics of any part of our American society. And, and, and that is really, I mean, that needs to be addressed. And we’ve when we find a film that addresses the issues of employment, it’s high on our list of priorities to screen because we recognize how important an issue it is. The issue of guardianships and the growing challenge to the placement of individuals, particularly with intellectual disabilities, into guardianships, where they actually lose the agency over decision making in their lives, I think is coming more and more to the fore. We’ve screened some films where that has been part of the theme, and as I’ve said to you, I feel like we are part of a civil rights struggle. And it hasn’t ended, I mean, it’s, it’s been kind of an interesting time in my life because my partner was diagnosed with Parkinson’s back in 2014. But only in the last several years has the impact of Parkinson’s been significantly felt, and it’s particularly around his mobility.
So here I am now, you know, really struggling with transportation with access and seeing the challenges of being a person with a disability making make his or her way in life in New York.
Keith: So is there anyone in your life that has taught you about the persistence of the human spirit, not letting obstacles hold you back. You just talked about your husband, I know you have a son, is there someone or a collection of people that regularly motivate you to keep on living in the face of adversity?
Anita: I feel a personal obligation to live my life to its fullest and to be a member of a society, which is full of injustice. Challenging and working and struggling to deal with the injustices. I personally feel like we all have an obligation to be very present in our lives. And to be very aware of, that there’s much that is wrong and that we have an obligation to challenge that. So I’m not sure I’m really answering your question. But I know that that keeps me going.
Keith: Yeah, that’s fine. What would you like to see society do to help the disability community? I know what, that’s a very open ending question and we could probably spend hours upon hours talking about it. Just like we could probably spend episodes talking about the impact of Reel Abilities, but in terms of coming out of this very challenging pandemic what ways do you think and hope society can be more understanding. Regarding the disability community.
Anita: Well, you know, I think there are a number of issues that confront not only people with disabilities but with the larger system society as well. You know, the ability to have a meaningful employment that pays a living wage. You know, I think coming out of this pandemic what we see is a shortage of a growing number of people who will no longer tolerate slave wages. And I think, for people with disabilities the ability to get a job and to have the accommodations necessary to enable them to be productive and flourish in their work. I think the issue of affordable housing is very much an issue not only for people with disabilities but with the larger society. Quality health care that’s readily available. I’m grateful that we have curb cuts in this city. That was a long struggle.
And that we have a surface transit system, our buses namely, that are accessible that people have really been able to literally come out of their homes. I know, for myself, I never realized how many people were wheelchair users until the MTA converted all their buses and made them accessible and it was like where did all these people come from? And obviously, they were being liberated you know, from the limitations that were imposed by very inadequate transportation systems. I think you know, many of the issues for people with disabilities are also for lots of other people in society.
Keith: So following up on that question, we have talked a lot about your professional life story your work and how it led to Reel Abilities, and the empowerment aspect of creating a film festival with the JCC that has not only gone national but also international. I know that a lot of the listeners of this podcast with disabilities will care about the history in hearing about the behind the scene’s origins. Or maybe a listener will not know and this episode will allow them to know about the film festival just as my work at the CUNY School of Professional Studies directed me to the JCC and that’s how I discovered Reel Abilities. With everything we talked about in this episode, why should people who are not yet disabled themselves care about everything we’ve talked about?
Anita: Because we’re human beings because I believe that we have a common humanity. That’s why and what kind of society do we want to live in? One that is open and caring and supportive, or that treats people like others? Meaning less than, outside of, unrelated to us? You know, we mean, I think we’re living through a very dark time in US history. And, I’m not feeling I’m a glass half full person, meaning I live with, on the optimistic side of things, and I’m really very anxious about what our future holds in store for us. But I know for me, I know what kind of world I want to live in, and the kind of world that I have struggled to help create in my long lifetime. And,
and the message and the existence of Reel Abilities is simply yet another expression of what I want to see this world be like, which is embracing and supportive, and affirming. You know, I think the kind of feedback we’ve gotten, because we for years have done surveys, ask people to fill out evaluations at the end of the screening, is that these films have exposed them to something that they were unaware of, or didn’t think about or just didn’t know. That’s what we-that’s what we were aiming for.
Keith: Well, you certainly hit the mark in terms of the passion and commitment that comes through loud and clear every year at Reel Abilities. I have the highest esteem for both you and Isaac and the team at JCC to create one of my favorite events each and every year. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on the Disability Empowerment Now podcast. As we close- How can listeners find out more about what you’re up to in the future? Or how can listeners find out more about Reel Abilities in what you’re doing?
Anita: Well, in point of fact the internet has made things infinitely more accessible and available to us and you literally just do you know, www.reelabilities.com. And on our website, you can choose which city you’re interested in finding information about. You go to New York, and you have our programs.
Keith: That’s a brilliant place to end, again Anita-thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on the podcast. I have enjoyed it immensely and I hope you will come back soon.
Anita: Well Keith, I want to wish you the best of good fortune and the very very you know thank you very much.
Keith: You have been listening to Disability Empowerment Now, I would like to thank my guest today and you the listener. More information about the podcast can be found on disabilityempowermentnow.com. The podcast is available wherever you listen to the podcast or on the official website. This episode of Disability Empowerment Now is copyrighted 2022.