ReelAbilities uses the power of film to showcase a more inclusive world for those with disabilities

ReelAbilities uses the power of film to showcase a more inclusive world for those with disabilities

Twenty percent of the U.S. population has a disability, and this year’s ReelAbilities Film Festival promises to bring those experiences to the big screen in a universal way.

“More than 54 million Americans have disabilities,” said Kristi Trautman, executive director of the FISA Foundation, an organization that advocates for those with special needs in the Pittsburgh region and a sponsor of the film festival that features shows on Oct. 22, 26 and 30.

“ReelAbilities provides a much-needed showcase for excellent films that address the very human experiences related to living with a disability,” Trautman said. “Love, family, belonging, adventure, relationships, sexuality; it’s all part of these films.”

To do this, the event plans to show four films at two venues. Three of the films include a post-film discussion with special guests.

In its second year, the ReelAbilities Film Festival will kick off with celebrity guest Angela Rockwood, creator and star of the reality television program “Push Girls,” which follows the lives of five women who are, in the words of the program’s website, “smart, sexy, dynamic women who want the world; they just happen to be in wheelchairs.” Rockwood was in a car accident in 2001 that left her paralyzed and a quadriplegic. After seeking stem cell treatment in Portugal, she is now able to operate a manual wheelchair.

A fashion model and actor, Rockwood’s speech following the first night’s film, “Cinemability,” will set the tone for the rest of the festival.

“While all the films and supplementary programming are terrific, I would especially highlight the opening night film … which is a fascinating documentary that explores how people with disabilities have been portrayed in film and on television,” said Shani Lasin, a program officer with the FISA Foundation. “The film utilizes movie clips and interviews with Hollywood celebrities to underscore how these portrayals have evolved and the impact that film can have on society.”

Film, after all, can be a way to make an impact.

“Film is so powerful,” said Trautman. “It’s a way to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit and understand, sometimes very profoundly, what their experience might be like; the experience of people with disabilities is profoundly underrepresented in mainstream film.”

JFilm, the Jewish Film Forum, is also sponsoring the festival.

“It is not often that the disability community has a chance to see their stories presented on the big screen, and JFilm is proud to bring these stories to Pittsburgh audiences,” said Kathryn Spitz Cohan, JFilm’s executive director.

But the films are not necessarily about Judaism, she admitted. “While none of this year’s films have Jewish content per se, we are all the better for knowing as much as we can about individuals with disabilities and envisioning and working to create a more inclusive world.”

Rodef Shalom Temple is one of two venues screening the films.

“I’m incredibly proud that Rodef Shalom can be a home for this type of cultural inclusion,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno. “It’s a very special privilege to be a convener of new ideas and perspectives on the wide diversity within our community.”

For its coordinators, the take-away of the film festival is that its messages have something for everyone.

“While the ReelAbilities Film Festival’s theme is about the experience of people with disabilities, these films are also universal,” said Trautman. “They are engaging, compelling, funny, thought provoking, really good films.”

For tickets and more information, go to

Bee Schindler can be reached at