ReelAbilities film festival raises questions of disability access — The Know

Producing festivals and other live events over the last 12 months minus big screens, stages or in-person attendance has left many organizers feeling deflated.

But the turn toward digital streaming also has led to accessibility for new audiences — particularly disabled people, for whom attendance to many past, in-person events was either difficult or impossible.

“We have been trying to bring this to Colorado since 2019,” said Amy Weiner Weiss, director of festivals at the JCC Mizel Arts and Culture Center, of the ReelAbilities Film Festival. “We saw it happening in late summer or early fall 2020, but obviously with the pandemic we had to re-envision all of our events.”

That was a challenge for the center’s programmers, who helmed the popular Denver Jewish Film Festival online again, Feb. 8-17. But for ReelAbilities, which debuts its first Denver event May 5-8 online at, being on-demand solved issues that event organizers often fumble with or ignore altogether.

“We’re approaching accessibility in a way we never thought about before,” Weiss said. “People who have limited mobility, who need sensory-friendly environments, or who may need to pause frequently — these are patrons we have not been able to reach, even with the most accessible in-person programming.”

From concerts to art openings and stand-up comedy shows, providing the same level of in-person access (and therefore respect) to people with disabilities often isn’t in the cards. Ramps for “immersive experiences,” accessible bathrooms and services at small clubs, and the possibility of after-party schmoozing often only happen (if at all) because federal law compels organizers and owners to provide it, not because it was planned for.

That’s why the hybrid, in-person-and-digital model will likely persist after the pandemic ends, Weiss said. During the Jewish Film Fest in February, the JCC Mizel Center’s analytics revealed that people in 26 states tuned in to see narrative features, documentaries and shorts about Jewish culture.

“Not only could we reach people in unprecedented ways, but in unprecedented locations,” Weiss said.

The modest, half-dozen films available for on-demand viewing May 5-8 as part of ReelAbilities is just the start. Based in New York, ReelAbilities International also produces events in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston and Houston. The Denver event will be arriving with the same level of perks.

In addition to titles such as “Code of the Freaks” (a critique of Hollywood’s representations of disabled characters), “There’s Still Hope for Dreams: A PHAMALY Story” (about Denver’s groundbreaking, nationally recognized theater company) and “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405” (an affecting artist portrait), there are digital panel conversations, artist talkbacks, workshops and an all-ages adaptive dance/movement workshop.

All dialogue, in both films and side content (Q&As, intros), is pre-recorded and professionally captioned, with audio descriptions for the visually impaired and ASL interpretation for all spoken content. Titles are not “geo-locked,” as with some festivals, meaning anyone in the United States can view Denver’s ReelAbilities lineup. Ticketing is pay-what-you-can, although people who can afford it should support the event with $12 tickets (and $6 for short screenings).

“We’re starting small, but we’re still focused on art and performance,” Weiss said. “In the future, we hope to have all kinds of content, because holistic, dignified, disability-centered representation is why we exist.”

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