ReelAbilities film fest encourages empathy for those with different abilities
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Toronto-based film and accessibility critic Michael McNeely, who is deafblind, has faced many frustrating customer-service challenges over the years.
With his combination of impaired vision and hearing, he prefers texting, email and chatting in person as his main forms of communication.
If he has to talk over the phone, he arranges for his intervenor from the Canadian Deafblind Association to mediate the conversation.
Seemingly simple everyday tasks such as ordering food or tickets can be extremely challenging — particularly when businesses don't know about his condition or understand it.
"Even today I was trying to get an Uber to the theatre and the man kept calling me and I kept texting him and saying, 'I'm deaf, please don't call me,'" the Kingston, Ont., native said in a recent phone interview, which was mediated by his intervenor.
"It just keeps on going. There are so many different kinds of reactions from uninformed people."
McNeely shares his experiences in his comical new film "Hold Music," a 10-minute, semi-silent experimental short that's screening at the Toronto ReelAbilities Film Festival, which kicks off Wednesday.
A total of 17 films from around the world are in the lineup for the fest, which showcases people with different abilities and is fully accessible to them.
"I hope that this festival is an example to other festivals like it," said McNeely, who directed and starred in his film, about his obstacles in trying to buy tickets to a musical.
He hopes his film will spur companies to speak to people with disabilities to get their perspectives on how to improve customer service. And he wants audiences to "look beyond a label and find a human being underneath."
"I hope that they will just recognize that there are many different perspectives in life and that sometimes what may seem easy for one person is actually very difficult," said McNeely.
Other Canadian titles in the festival lineup include the short documentary "My Life in the City" by Toronto filmmaker Adam Goldhammer. It shows the way a group of Toronto adults with intellectual disabilities live on a day-to-day basis in an urban space — something experts in the film say there isn't a lot of research on.
Some of the film's subjects share heartbreaking stories of longing to be independent and being called names in public spaces.
Those who don't have help from family members struggle to get government funding and access to support programs.
"We have a lot of funding for kids, for people who are considered 'dependents' up until the age of like 18, 19 and then suddenly there's a large vacuum," said Goldhammer.
"It's like, 'OK, you're 19 now, you are now an adult,' and so the funding and the programs really dries up.... For some of these people, that distinction between an adult and child, it's a longer developmental process. And so we need more programs and support for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities."
This is Goldhammer's third film on people with intellectual disabilities. He said he's passionate about the subject matter because his older sister is on the autism spectrum, still lives with his parents, and requires "24-hour care."
The key message behind his film is to "have empathy towards people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," he said.
"They talk about discrimination in public spaces, especially on public transit," said Goldhammer. "One of the people involved, Sean, in the documentary ... he told a story about how he was taking the subway and he heard two kids using the word 'retard,' and they were just saying it offhandedly.
"Being a person with an intellectual disability who's been labelled this word before and them using it towards one another in a derogatory way was really painful for him to hear. Our use of language in public spaces, even if we're not thinking about it and we're not saying it in an offensive way, can have a real impact on the people around us and I think that's an important message that Sean wanted to share."