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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Rolling: Film and Disability

The vast majority of films produced to date portray disabled people in a way that reinforces negative stereotypes. Disabled people are often depicted as angry, sad, or bitter individuals who are unable or unwilling to overcome their physical deficit. The "problem" always rests with the individual and their flawed or damaged character. There are, of course, some exceptions. For example Coming Home (1978), Children of a Lesser God (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), My Left Foot (1989), Water Dance (1992), and Passion Fish (1992) all have some redeeming value. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are films that openly advocate or at least tacitly approve killing disabled people (Million Dollar Baby). Regardless, the message sent to society by film makers is clear: the lives of disabled people are not valued--America has no use for such flawed people.

In the past few years, independent film makers and documentaries have begun to shed positive light on disabled people. The first such film was Murder Ball (2005), critically acclaimed but a box office bust. Murder Ball was ground breaking in that it portrayed the lives of young paralyzed men who played international Quad rugby and followed the intense competition between Para Olympic teams. The men depicted were cool, funny, and typical jocks. The year after Murder Ball was released another documentary, So Much So Fast, was released that was well received. This film was about Stephen Haywood and the impact his diagnosis of ALS had on him and his family. So Much So Fast also explored why rare conditions such ALS have not been studied by drug companies. Both Murder Ball and So Much So Fast are excellent films and in different ways try to explore what life is like for disabled people. To a certain extent they succeed but the gritty reality of every day life for disabled people is not the focus.

The real world experiences of disabled people are the subject of Gretchen Berland's superb documentary Rolling that will be airing this month on Public Television. More than any other film I have ever seen, Rolling provides the viewer with a real life understanding of what life is like when one uses a wheelchair. The film is based on 212 hour of tape taken over a period of two years (2001 to 2003). The vast majority of the film footage was recorded by three people (Galen Buckwalter, Vicki Elman, and Ernie Wallengren) from Los Angeles who had video cameras mounted on their wheelchairs. For those unfamiliar with disability, the film is not easy to watch yet gripping at the same time. It took less than thirty seconds for me to be hooked and realize Rolling was going where no other film about disability has ever gone. The opening observation made by Buckwalter was: "Because most people can walk and run and climb, and since I can't, I'm defined as disabled. Not only defined as disabled, I'm expected to act and feel disabled. For many years I did the same, but what they don't see now is that I'm a survivor". What Buckwalter is able to survive is not the injury that rendered him paralyzed but the stigma, prejudice, and social isolation that results from using a wheelchair. This is exactly where Rolling excels--it graphically reveals the gross social inequities that exist for people who use a wheelchair.

Several themes are evident throughout Rolling and Berland is obviously a first rate story teller. Among the themes that struck me as particularly important are independence versus dependence, the utter failure of the health care system to provide basic services to disabled people, the lack of wheelchair access and the resulting social isolation as well as the lack of common respect awarded to people that use a wheelchair. To me, this is old story but never have I seen a film get to the nitty gritty of what it is like to be disabled. This is not a sexy or cool film--it is a remorseless indictment of American society that reveals the overwhelming social and practical obstacles disabled people routinely encounter. For those unfamiliar with disability, some scenes are bound to be shocking. For example, when Vicki Elman's wheelchair breaks her doctor wonders aloud "what are we going to do with you? Do you want to go to a nursing home or get a baby sitter at home?" During filming of Rolling Elman was forced to enter a nursing home and where an aide tells her to urinate in a bed pan or in diaper she states "the degradation begins".

The greatest strength of Rolling is that by the end of the film Buckwalter, Elman, and Wallengren are humans who even the most resistant person to inclusion will acknowledge are treated poorly by their bipedal peers. Once the social stigma associated with using a wheelchair is removed the viewer simply sees three ordinary people who have learned how to adapt. Using a wheelchair is a means of empowerment and enables people to lead a rich and full life. This is what makes Rolling such an important contribution for illustrating this is a major accomplishment on the part of Berland. I hope Rolling and the website created by for the film will be widely utilized by colleges and groups interested in disability rights, health care reform, and disability awareness advocates. Berland and all those associated with Rolling are to be commended for making a major contribution one that I hope will enlighten those willing to think about their preconceived notions about the meaning of disability.