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Attending the Inaugural ReelAbilities Film & Television Accessibility Summit in NYC

RespectAbility Lab Alumni and team members at ReelAbilities Film Festival

L-R: Nasreen Alkhateeb, Isabella Vargas, Molly McConville, Kiah Amara, April Caputi, Alaa Zabara, Colin Buckingham

New York, NY, April 14 – ReelAbilities, the nation’s largest film festival focused on disability inclusion hosted its first ever Film and Television Accessibility Summit in NYC last week. I had the opportunity to attend the summit where a wide variety of panelists spoke on all matters related to accessibility, and how we all can contribute to creating an accessible, successful, and welcoming entertainment industry.

The summit virtually covered every area of the industry, from pre-production to post-production and marketing. Each panel was produced with a sharp eye for accessibility, serving as the perfect model on how all events should provide accessible spaces. The panels were hybrid, giving some people the ease of tuning in virtually. There were several ASL interpreters throughout, closed captioning, and other accommodations were easily added in as requested by the audience. It was a great example of how different people with different disabilities and needs can co-exist in this kind of space. For me, this was a refreshing thing to see and experience in action. It gave me plenty of ease and comfort as a participant, and I believe it also gave each panelist a comfortable space to really dive into talking about disability and accessibility.

Panel on accessible casting and sets, accessibility for all, and compassionate industry beyond Disability identity during the ReelAbilities 2022 Accessibility Summit

(L-R): Lauren Ridloff, Actor/SAG, Nasreen Alkhateeb, DP and RespectAbility Senior Production Advisor, moderator Kiah Amara, Producer/PAC and IndieVisible, and April Caputi, Casting Associate.

One of the most interesting panels was focused on Production. Marvel superhero Lauren Ridloff was joined by different RespectAbility alumni who each shared fascinating takes on how disability and access should show up in all areas of production. Authentic and accessible casting should always be a priority, but we should also think about hiring disabled film crews and providing accommodations for those working below the line. I was personally moved by Ridloff’s point that disabled people shouldn’t have to apologize for their needs on set. It can sometimes feel like second nature to not want to inconvenience someone, or be a burden, if we need to request an accommodation. However, as people we all have needs and it should be our right to ask for what is needed to do the job.

I also appreciated Ridloff’s comment on how community is important and that non-disabled people can and should step up to create an accessible space and culture. On this note, I really appreciated other panelists’ response, from Nasreen Alkhateeb’s mention on the importance of decentering yourself if you’re in a position of privilege to April Caputi’s anecdotes on pushing people to mention accessibility in everything they can, such as in an email signature. Overall, it felt empowering to see a panel of different women with disabilities own their needs and own what they know they can bring to the table.

When it came to Post-Production, Audio Describer and Inclusion Advocate, Thomas Reid brought up the fact that audio descriptions can benefit anyone, not just those who are blind or low-vision. There are neurodivergent folks who want audio description, or mothers who want to pay attention to their kids but who also want to be able to listen to a movie. Those on the marketing panel brought up compelling points on the difference between being ADA compliant and being truly accessible. I feel like I personally gained plenty of insight on the best ways to motivate companies to champion accessibility by thinking of customer service and the value in their disabled audience.

Discussions came to a close with a series of networking events. It was fulfilling to meet several disabled filmmakers and professionals at the top of their game. It means a lot to me to be able to plug into a whole new community I didn’t know existed beforehand. It has given me a fresh perspective on all of the potential within the entertainment industry. Last week, I didn’t even know people worked as Production Accessibility Coordinators or that groups such as FWD-Doc or Women of Color Unite are bringing different professionals together. I left the summit and the festival excited about all of the work that so many organizations are doing, and with an even stronger motivation within myself to push disability-inclusion in all of my own work.

Meet the Author

Isabella Vargas

Isabella Vargas is a filmmaker and community organizer who grew up chronically ill in South Florida. Her goals are to be a disability advocate in the media space and to craft compelling stories about people who identify as disabled and as BIPOC.

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