Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Netflix wants to crowdsource captioning for its 50,000 videos

From GigaOM:

Netflix just launched a subtitling community project on the video captioning service Amara, formerly known as Universal Subtitles. The company is looking for a limited number of volunteers on the site, and apparently wants to try using crowd-sourced captioning with a “popular 80s cartoon and other classic TV programming,” according to information posted on the site.

A Netflix spokesperson told me that the company’s efforts on the site simply represent a test: “Netflix is committed to accessibility and we have decided to test Amara to see if it could work for Netflix content. This is a small scale, early stage test. It is premature to discuss if we would actually use the titles resulting from this test or any future use of Amara.”

Netflix’s captioning community on Amara currently nly features one video, which according to information provided on the site represents “an example of Netflix SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) Guidelines in action.”

Netflix is known as a company that is obsessed with testing. That being said, a service like Amara could represent a significant opportunity for Netflix. The company currently offers close to 50,000 movies and TV show episodes in the U.S., and has been expanding to countries where customers speak French, Spanish and Portuguese over the last few months. Netflix is slated to announce another international expansion soon, which could add another language to its roster.

Crowd-sourced captioning and subtitle translation could help to provide closed captions in all of these markets, and alleviate the pressure it’s been facing from deaf and hard-of-hearing advocates. Netflix was sued for not providing captions for all of its videos a year ago, and a judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed last month.

Amara originally launched as Universal Subtitles, and allows users to transcribe videos with a simple online editor. The site has been used by media organizations like Al Jazeera and the PBS NewsHour as well as the popular education site Khan Academy to crowd-source captioning and translation. I’ve been told by the Amara folks that its community has now subtitled more than 100,000 videos total.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation reports on 10 most accessible U.S. cities

from Journal Register News Service:

A city that's walkable may lure college grads and retirees, but urban areas that are accessible to even those who can't walk are more convenient for everybody.

The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation has long advocated for increased access for people with wheelchairs and has taken an interest in how cities are improving access and complying with the Americans With Disabilities act. Recently, it looked at 100 of America's largest cities and ranked them based on wheelchair access and quality of life for people using wheelchairs.

The group took climate into account and tried to avoid cities with extreme temperatures or snowfall that pose major obstacles to those living with paralysis. It also took into account air quality, number of physicians, rehab specialists and rehab centers, accessible fitness and recreation facilities and transit for the disabled.

If a city contained large numbers of physically disabled people and those people were able to get jobs, that was considered a plus. The age of the cities was also considered, especially since older buildings are tough to upgrade, as was each city's spending and eligibility requirements for Medicaid.

10. Lubbock, Texas

The home of Texas Tech is on a simple grid, has a Citibus bus system that recently deployed hybrid buses specifically equipped to accommodate full-sized wheelchairs and averages high temperatures near 60 degrees in the middle of February. It's a fairly sprawling urban center, but that climate and ease of navigation help shrink the distance from here to there.

9. Orlando, Fla.

Yes, it's in hurricane country, but it also has average temperatures in the 70s from November through March. Combined with the Lynx bus system that's wheelchair accessible, modern construction courtesy of Orlando's boundless sprawl and a vast health care network, Orlando's climate is pretty friendly to the wheelchair bound.

8. Winston-Salem, N.C.

There's certainly some overlap between cities friendly toward retirees and wheelchair users. Winston-Salem attracts both with help from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Novant Health facilities, but the new construction that's accompanied the city's more than 50% growth since 1990 certainly makes it easier to manage.

7. Birmingham, Ala.

The city's been shrinking since the 1970s, but it still has winter temperatures in the 60s and vast health care resources thanks to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and HealthSouth(HLS). The biggest perk, however, comes from the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, which operates nearly two dozen paratransit buses throughout the city.

6. Chicago

Old, snowy, vertical: How did Chicago get considered for this list? Part of it stems from the Chicago Transit Authority, which made more than 90 of its 145 rail stations ADA compliant and offers discounted fares to wheelchair users. The city's extensive health care infrastructure comes in handy as well, but the Healthy Community Mapping System that the University of Illinois is creating for the city to track the actual accessibility of buildings, fitness centers, sidewalks and stores will be a bit more helpful. The system will tell users where amenities are best and where obstacles such as steep lips on sidewalks or narrow doors will be a problem.

5. Portland, Ore.

The Legacy Health System, Oregon Health & Science University Hospital and other health care facilities give plenty of options for care, but the myriad means of reaching those facilities is what makes Portland so accessible. The city's buses, MAX light rail trains and streetcars all accommodate wheelchairs, but the TriMet transportation system's Lift service provides riders more than 250 minibuses and more than a dozen cars to take them around the city.

4. Denver

There was a time Denver was a big, sprawling, transit-deprived mess that was tough for just about anyone to navigate, but that time has long since passed. The Regional Transportation District has expanded its bus and rail offerings and made all of it wheelchair accessible with priority seating. It also offers an Access-a-ride program that takes wheelchair riders anywhere within a three-quarter-mile radius of its transit system.

3. Reno, Nev.

The Biggest Little City In The World can get pretty cold in the winter and windy all year long, but there's very little precipitation and very little to keep folks from getting around. The Regional Transportation Commission's wheelchair-accessible bus and bus rapid transit lines only helps by offering reduced fares for passengers with disabilities. RTC Access buses help shrink the city a bit as well by providing paratransit service in the city's center as well as some of its outlying areas.

2. Albuquerque, N.M.

It's tough to argue with those 50- and 60-degree temperatures in the winter, but Albuquerque's got a lot more to offer its wheelchair-using residents than pleasant weather. It's home to the best health care New Mexico has to offer and counts University of New Mexico Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital and Lovelace Women's Hospital among its premier facilities. The city's ABQ Ride bus and bus rapid transit services also chip in by being 100% ADA compliant, offering discounted fares and providing SunVan curb-to-curb paratransit to any point in the city.

1. Seattle

The city is synonymous with rain and is so hilly that some of its first roads were created in areas where loggers slid trees down to the waterfront. Fortunately, Sound Transit's bus and light rail lines (pictured) are wheelchair accessible, discounted and supplemented by paratransit van service. Metro Transit, meanwhile, offers a shared ride program, a map of accessible downtown routes and reduced fares. This not only helps improve access in a city that's notoriously tough to navigate, but opens up clear lanes to facilities such as Harborview Medical Center, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center, University of Washington Medical Center and the VA.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Reddit-powered show gets disabled comedian Zach Anner rolling again

From Mashable:

In 2010, Zach Anner submitted an audition tape to Oprah’s “Your OWN Show” contest. When the Internet got wind of it, the web couldn’t stop laughing. The wheelchair-bound comic charmed the online communities of Reddit and 4chan with self-deprecating humor that poked fun at his own affliction — cerebral palsy.

More than nine million votes later (despite an alleged voting rig, which Redditors debunked), the Internet convinced one of the biggest cultural influencers in cable television, and arguably America.

The show, Rollin’ With Zach Anner, was a travelogue for the disabled. Four episodes later, it was canceled due to poor ratings.

Despite a short-lived cable career, Anner is asking his web audience to give the travel show a second chance, and he has help from Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

The new web series Riding Shotgun With Zach Anner lets Reddit users decide where Anner will travel. He will shoot in eight cities over the course of six weeks.

Starting Wednesday through midnight EST on July 23, Reddit users can submit a city in the continental U.S. or Canada on the official Zach Anner subreddit, along with a one-sentence explanation on why he should go there.

Anner, who will also kick off the campaign with an AMA Wednesday at 11 a.m. EST, will choose eight destinations within the 25 most up-voted submissions.

Three friends experienced in film and production will join Anner in his travels. Gas, food and accommodations will be provided by Reddit, though Ohanian claims that he is seeking sponsorship from brands. There will also be limited edition t-shirts for sale online.

Despite OWN’s cancellation, Anner notes that the journey, on some level, would not be possible without the network. The team will travel in what he calls the “Oprah mobile,” a car he received from Oprah that’s specially equipped for his wheelchair.

Riding Shotgun will utilize Reddit’s sophisticated commenting system and the videos will be hosted on a dedicated YouTube channel.

According to Ohanian, this is the first series to have an official branded subreddit. Even the most engaged subreddits in the entertainment industry, like for Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, are run by fans.

“These shows do such a good job building an audience. They keep us so tuned in that we just cannot wait for next week’s episode. But what do they do to stoke that community when the show isn’t on? Maybe they tweet a few times, maybe they update their Facebook page, but none of those things are actually places for fans of the show to come together and talk about it,” says Ohanian.

Ohanian hopes that Anner can be an example for brands to consider taking advantage of Reddit.

As for Anner, integrating the online community was an important part of his vision for the travel show, even when it was on OWN.

“[Reddit users] weren’t able to be included in the making, which I felt was really important. It’s why I got there in the first place — because they could support this thing that they believe in,” says Anner. “If you eliminate that part of interactivity, that’s less exciting for people who have been championing you all along.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Baby with Down syndrome will be the face of designer’s swimwear ads

From Ad Week:

Models with Down syndrome have been making inroads into advertising lately as part of ensemble casts in circulars and catalogs.

Now, a 10-month-old Miami girl, Valentina Guerrero (pictured), is fronting a whole campaign from the notable Spanish swimwear designer Dolores Cortés. Valentina graces the cover of the new Dolores Cortés USA catalog, and is the face of the brand's 2013 DC Kids ads.

Last Friday, Cortés showed off her new collection in Miami Beach, and brought Valentina out on to the runway.

Valentina is said to be the first person with Down syndrome in history to be the main model of a campaign from a prestigious fashion designer.

"People with Down syndrome are just as beautiful and deserve the same opportunities. I'm thrilled to have Valentina modeling for us," Cortés says.

Dolores Cortés Kids USA will also donate 10 percent of the profits of this collection to the Down Syndrome Association of Miami.

Turner Classic Movies to examine Hollywood's depiction of people with disabilities in The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film in October

From Turner:

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will dedicate the month of October to exploring the ways people with disabilities have been portrayed in film. On behalf of Inclusion in the Arts, Lawrence Carter-Long will join TCM host Robert Osborne for The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film. The special month-long exploration will air Tuesdays in October, beginning Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. (ET).

TCM makes today’s announcement to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) on July 26. And in a first for TCM, all films will be presented with both closed captioning and audio description (via secondary audio) for audience members with auditory and visual disabilities.

The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film features more than 20 films ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s. Each night's collection will explore particular aspects, themes, or types of disability, such as blindness, deafness and psychiatric or intellectual disabilities. In addition, one evening of programming will focus on newly disabled veterans returning home from war.

TCM's exploration of disability in cinema includes many Oscar®-winning and nominated films, such as An Affair to Remember (1957), in which Deborah Kerr's romantic rendezvous with Cary Grant is nearly derailed by a paralyzing accident; A Patch of Blue (1965), with Elizabeth Hartman as a blind white girl who falls in love with a black man, played by Sidney Poitier (pictured); Butterflies Are Free (1972), starring Edward Albert as a blind man attempting to break free from his over-protective mother; and Gaby: A True Story (1987), the powerful tale of a girl with cerebral palsy trying to gain independence as an artist; Johnny Belinda(1948), starring Jane Wyman as a "deaf-mute" forced to defy expectations; The Miracle Worker (1962), starring Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), with Jack Nicholson as a patient in a mental institution and Louise Fletcher as the infamous Nurse Ratched; The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the post-War drama starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy and real-life disabled veteran Harold Russell; and Charly (1968), with Cliff Robertson as an intellectually disabled man who questions the limits of science after being turned into a genius.

The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film also features several lesser-known classics ripe for rediscovery, including the atmospheric Val Lewton chiller Bedlam (1946), the intriguing blind-detective mystery Eyes in the Night (1942); A Child is Waiting (1963), with Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland; the British family drama Mandy (1953); and a bravura performance by wheelchair user Susan Peters in Sign of the Ram (1948). A complete schedule is included.
Each year since 2006, TCM has dedicated one month toward examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed in the movies. Several of the programming events have centered on Race and Hollywood, with explorations on how the movies have portrayed African-Americans in 2005, Asians in 2008, Latinos in 2009, Native Americans in 2010 and Arabs in 2011. TCM looked at Hollywood's depiction of gay and lesbian characters, issues and themes in 2007.

"The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film is a valuable opportunity to take a deeper look at the movies we all know and love, to see them from a different perspective and to learn what they have to say about us as a society," said Osborne. "We are very proud to be working with Inclusion in the Arts on this important exploration. And we are especially glad to have Lawrence Carter-Long of the National Council on Disability with us to provide fascinating, historical background and thought-provoking insight on how cinematic portrayals of disability have evolved over time."

"From returning veterans learning to renegotiate both the assumptions and environments once taken for granted to the rise of independent living, Hollywood depictions of disability have alternately echoed and influenced life outside the movie theater," said Carter-Long, who curated the series. "Twenty-two years after the passage of the ADA and over a century since Thomas Edison filmed 'The Fake Beggar,' TCM and Inclusion in the Arts provide an unprecedented overview of how cinematic projections of isolation and inspiration have played out on the silver screen – and in our lives. When screened together, everything from The Miracle Worker to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest reveals another layer where what you think you know is only the beginning."

About Lawrence Carter-Long
Widely recognized for his expertise in the arts, access and media, Lawrence Carter-Long is a sought-after media spokesperson on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from medical ethics to media representation of disability. His numerous media appearances have included The New York Times, NBC's Today Show, CNN, NPR and the BBC, among others. He was a co-host and producer on The Largest Minority Radio Show on WBAI-FM from 2006-2011.

While recognized for his media work, Carter-Long is perhaps best known as the founder and curator of the disTHIS! Film Series, presented in partnership with New York University's Center for the Study of Disability from 2006 until 2010. The groundbreaking monthly film series brought new audiences and attention to cinematic representation of disability by showcasing edgy, provocative and unconventional portrayals across the disability spectrum with the promise of "No handkerchief necessary; no heroism required." He was a member of the steering committee of the ReelAbilities: Disabilities Film Festival from 2007-2010 and selected the Emerging Disabled Filmmaker Apprenticeships for the American Film Institute/Silverdocs and VSA Arts from 2009-2011.

For his advocacy, Carter-Long was awarded the Frieda Zames Advocacy Award by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009 and the Paul G. Hearne Leadership Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities in 2010. In May 2011, Carter-Long moved to Washington, D.C. to work as the public affairs specialist for the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that recommends federal disability policy to the President, Congress and other federal agencies

Monday, July 23, 2012

In Utah, power of play extends beyond swings at fully inclusive playgrounds

From The Deseret News in Utah:

The playground was not a fun place for Laurie Schulze to take her disabled daughter, Leah.

"When she was younger it felt a little overwhelming," Schulze said. "I would be with her at a playground thinking 'how is she going to do any of this?' "

As Leah grew up and moved from a stroller to a wheelchair, Schulze wondered if her daughter would ever get to truly enjoy a playground.

Schulze found her answer on a beautiful sunny day in Westerville, Ohio. She took then 12-year-old Leah to the playground again, but this time the results were much different. For mother and daughter, this day was momentous.

"It was very emotional because it wasn't just Leah playing," Schulze said. "There were other children with disabilities with their families. Just to see her jumping in and participating was so great. Words can't describe how wonderful that felt."

Leah, who participates in everything from Girl Scouts to sled hockey, is in a wheelchair because she has spina bifida. She cannot get around without the aid of a wheelchair, but on this day she was a child just like everyone else enjoying the comforts and benefits of play.

"Everything melted together and it was just amazing to see everyone playing together," Schulze said. "There were happy smiling faces everywhere. It was wonderful chaos."

This "wonderful chaos" was made possible by a universally accessible playground called Millstone Creek Park, built in Schulze's neighborhood with the intention of allowing children of all ages and learning levels and those with disabilities to enjoy the benefits of play. More than 100 facilities like Millstone exist across the country, according to experts, with more in the works. These specialized playgrounds often go beyond the ADA-required guidelines and provide all children with the experience of play that facilities camaraderie, acceptance and overall health and wellness.

These inclusive playgrounds address the needs of all children, including those who have autism, intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other challenges. An inclusive playground accommodates all and challenges them at their own development level, according to information released in a recent report titled "Inclusive Play Design Guide."

Regardless of whether the children are in a wheelchair or have a disability such as autism, all children have a fundamental need and right to play, said Design for Play consultant and play expert JC Boushh.
"From birth until death, play is a vital part of human development," Boushh said. "For children, especially, play is how they come to understand the world around them. Play provides those things that you can't get anywhere else."
Play can even help mitigate stereotypes and biases that many adults and children have about the disabled, said Mara Kaplan, lead expert for Let Kids Play and mother of a disabled son.

"A typically developing child who's never seen a child with a disability will just start playing with them because they haven't been told that person is different or weird or strange," she said. "They just find another kid on the playground to play with and by doing so they've learned a really important lesson."

Schulze said the experiences her daughter Leah has gained on the playground have been invaluable, and she agrees that the inclusion and acceptance of those with disabilities is important for society.

"It's just the right thing to do," she said. "They need to be a part of society. There are so many people with challenges out there. You're only one car accident away."

Watching Leah play with the other children is always emotional for Schulze as she realizes the significance of childhood play.

"The children are able to gain confidence, meet new people, and the playground teaches tolerance at a very early age," she said. "It teaches them that everybody has value and helps children become better people. Barriers disappear."

Experts estimate right now that there are about 100 fully inclusive playgrounds across the country, but more are being planned and designed every day. Communities such as Westerville received an inclusive playground due in large part to the efforts of parents like Schulze, who successfully raised awareness and advocated change.

"I was impassioned and motivated to raise awareness about how important play is," Schulze said. "I wanted to educate people and fight for accessible play for everyone."

Although there are ADA requirements for specifications on playgrounds, meeting these requirements does not guarantee a fun or inclusive park for all.

"You have to think beyond the ADA requirements," Schulze said. "You have to think about how someone in a wheelchair would really use this."

Guidelines and standards for parks weren't always followed or enforced. Recently, the ADA updated and retooled its requirements, and a few years ago a diverse committee of experts got together to come up with better design practices for these playgrounds, Boushh said.

"The requirements are now much better defined and much more enforceable," he said. "We came up with the idea of an inclusive playground, but no one really defined it. Only now are people starting to really understand what inclusion is."

Previous playgrounds that may have been modified or updated to meet ADA guidelines were still not getting at the heart of the matter, Boushh said.

"Most kids with disabilities have been outside the scope of play," he said. "There was nothing for them to do once they got to the playground. Now, the idea is to design playgrounds that are inclusive not just for mobility impairments but also for cognitive and sensory disabilities."

The Inclusive Play Design Guide, released this year, aims to better define inclusion and provide comprehensive guidelines for effectively building and managing these playgrounds. The guide draws on experts and sources from across the country, ranging from landscape architects to parents, and provides a road map for future developers and parties interested in building an inclusive playground.

Boushh, who has lectured worldwide about the importance of play and providing all children with adequate and inclusive playgrounds, said the new guide will help communities and contractors get on the same page and allow them to have an accurate reference for future construction.

"Schools are looking harder at building these playgrounds and so are park districts," Kaplan said. "There is definitely an increased awareness that there needs to be some changes."

Inclusive play structures incorporate music, light and sensory panels, and physical activities for children of all levels and abilities. Experts say just the opportunity to be involved in some way is beneficial for children.
"There was a toy that Leah couldn't get on but she could spin it," Schulze said. "She can't fully use every piece of equipment, but at least she can participate in some way."

A new ramp for wheelchairs may seem like a great accommodation and may even be ADA compliant, but experts agree simply installing ramps to meet ADA guidelines is not what inclusive play is all about.

"A lot of times ramps are a waste of money and a waste of space," Kaplan said. "There is no play value for that ramp. There is little to do with my son once we get up that ramp, so I would rather see money spent on other features."

Accessible swings, spinning toys and sensory equipment for children with autism are effective play equipment for most children that are worth the money, Kaplan said.

Money can be spent more efficiently and effectively, Schulze said.

"I've seen people put millions of dollars into something that ends up being boring for some kids," she said. "They spent a tremendous amount of money but didn't think about the design. It is really important to talk to families in the community and choose something that everyone will enjoy."

Because universally accessible playgrounds are typically larger and more complex than traditional playgrounds, they are also more expensive.

Boushh estimated that the average cost for a normal playground is around $100,000. The average cost for everything associated with a fully inclusive playground is between $500,000 and $1 million, he said.

Fencing, surfacing, ramping and pathways all increase the cost associated with these playgrounds.

"The majority, about 75 percent of the funding, comes from outside sources," Boushh said. "Most are funded by grants and fundraisers."

The cost of these playgrounds has not deterred many community members and parents from advocating for them, however.

"There is often money from the city, park district or school," Kaplan said. "People fund-raise and raise money the way they always have. There is also a lot of support from local foundations and businesses because the playgrounds are built for the community and their needs."

Despite the financial obstacles that may prevent some communities from building these playgrounds, experts agree they are worth every penny.

"I hope there will be more in the future and that people will make conscious decisions on how to design these playgrounds," Kaplan said. "It's no fun to sit on the sidelines and watch siblings and friends play."

Schulze will not soon forget her first experience at Millstone Creek Park. She recalls the festive atmosphere with, friends and family members skipping rocks and frolicking in the wading pool. She hopes that all parents will be able to share her same joy someday.

"I am encouraged that I see more of these parks coming," Schulze said. "Millstone is just amazing because everyone can play together. Every time I drive by it makes me smile."

Kenguru, first drive-from-wheelchair electric vehicle, enters production in Texas

From the Kenguru company:

Though its undoubtedly true to say that mobility vehicles designed for wheelchair access exist, like AM General's MV-1 these generally relegate the wheelchair user to backseat passenger. Vehicles that do allow a wheelchair behind the controls are expensive made-to-order conversions of people carriers and mini-buses.

The Kenguru is about as far from a people carrier as it's possible to get, being a small nimble electric vehicle, but one designed specifically for quick, easy access by, and driving from, a wheelchair. Its makers claim it is the first drive-from-wheelchair electric car.

The Kenguru has only a single door to the rear of the vehicle for direct wheelchair access. It's opened by remote control. Inside the driver is nestled in a 350-kg (772-lb) fiberglass cocoon 2125 mm (83.6 in) long, 1620 mm (63.8 in) wide and 1525 m (60 in) tall. That's 375 mm (14.8 in) shorter than a smart fortwo, and only 15 mm (0.6 in) wider: extremely compact, in other words. Empty weight with the batteries increases to 550 kg (1200 lb).

Power from the batteries is delivered to two 2-kW motors located on the rear axle. These afford a maximum speed of 45 km/h (28 mph), a range of between 70 and 110 km (43 and 68 miles) and a climbing ability limited to 20-percent gradients - modest, but Kenguru is positioned very much for short inner-city trips (the phrase "enough is as good as a feast" irresistibly springs to mind). Motorcycle-style handlebars provide steering, though a joystick-controlled version is currently in development.

Initially developed by Hungarian company Kenguru Services, the Kenguru has design is at least six years old. It was spotted by Texan lawyer Stacy Zoern (a wheelchair user herself) who setup Community Cars which now manufacturers Kengurus in Pflugerville.

The Kenguru is priced at US$25,000, but that this can be significantly reduced where electric vehicle or vocational rehabilitation incentives are available. The vehicle is set for a US launch in 6 to 12 months. Distribution in a number of European countries should follow. Community Cars is currently seeking investment through RocketHub to develop the joystick-controlled model.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sex and disability: Boston filmmaker turns lens on ‘The Last Taboo’

From WBUR-TV in Boston:

BOSTON — Alexander Freeman (pictured) has always been focused. When he was a toddler, he used to spend hours by the garden gate in his family’s Chestnut Hill home. Time after time, he’d open and close that gate, trying to get the movements right, trying to be perfect.

Freeman says he feels imperfect.

“I do not have this perfect body, what other people consider normal. So that made me even more determined to do that thing perfectly,” Freeman says. “But I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve known all my life that I would have to work that much harder to be understood, to be taken seriously.”

It’s that kind of focus Freeman applies to what he sees as his calling. He’s determined, he says, to defy the odds and to make films that defy stereotypes. No easy feat for a 25-year-old; even more challenging for a 25-year-old with cerebral palsy.

With four writer/director credits already, Freeman is now taking on a touchy subject: sexuality for people with disabilities. In “The Last Taboo,” he tells the stories of six men and women with various physical disabilities, and an able-bodied partner who was in a relationship with one of them. They talk about gender, identity, beauty, intimacy and relationships, and what their experiences have taught them about themselves.

“I call them outcasts,” Freeman says, “people who are pushed aside, people who are considered not equal.”
People such as Gary Karp. Karp has been using a wheelchair since 1973 when he injured his spinal cord falling from a tree. Karp, who went on to earn a master’s degree in architecture, is now an international public speaker, corporate trainer and author. He’s written three books, including “Disability & the Art of Kissing.”

Karp says Freeman’s film has given him an opportunity to share his perspectives on sexuality and the sense of self.

“We’re talking about our own sense of value — whether somebody sees us as valuable enough to explore intimate experience with us,” Karp says. “It’s about this deep, powerful partnership that we seek: somebody who can be a day-to-day partner with us, somebody who can hang in with us because we’re all so imperfect. And we all struggle so much with all of these things.”

Karp says that’s what great sex is about.

“That’s where the best sex comes from.When you have all those other things working in a relationship. It’s not about whether or not your genitals work or you have sensations in certain parts of your body or you can move in certain ways,” Karp says. “If somebody is basing their sense of self and their attractiveness in a relationship on whether they can perform porn-star sex, they’re making a mistake, disability or not.”

Freeman includes his own story in the film, speaking frankly about the first time he felt attractive.

“It was the first time I felt wanted in a romantic way, and the person who gave me that experience really changed my whole perception of who I am,” Freeman says. “So the beginning of the film is about discovering what I was feeling when that happened.”

That relationship didn’t pan out and Freeman went through what he calls “a dark period.” Then he decided to channel his anger into creativity and what is now “The Last Taboo.”

Freeman edited ‘The Last Taboo” with Ryan Egan. They met in a screenwriting class at Emerson College in 2011. Freeman had joined the school’s documentary film organization called Captured Emotion, where he pitched the concept for “The Last Taboo.” It was a hard sell because of the topic, Freeman says.

Egan, a 21-year-old from Philadelphia who wants to work in documentaries, agreed it was an ambitious project for any college student. But she says Freeman is capable, and she shares his goals.

“‘Taboo’ is in your face about sex,” Egan says. “But it’s about more than that. Once you sit down with all the footage and hear people speak, it’s less about sexy-fun-time stories and more about what it’s like to be in a relationship and what it does to your self esteem to be validated in a relationship. It’s also a call to break down barriers and encourage people to look beyond predisposed perceptions.”

Egan and Freeman work as they would in a professional environment. He says his physical limitations don’t limit his abilities as a filmmaker. He writes on a laptop, using a joystick and he edits using Final Cut Pro, an industry standard.

On set, he doesn’t have to hang lights or move a camera, but he says he has to make the right creative choices in order to direct his crew and make a scene work. As a director, Freeman has the final word, but he believes in a collaborative approach to get there.

His working style with Egan seems to be modeled on a legendary relationship he admires — that of director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It turns out Freeman met Schoonmaker five years ago at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. He approached her after a forum there and says he didn’t stop to think of himself as anything but a young filmmaker looking for advice, or that his disability might get in the way.

“I thought, ‘Just go for it.’ This is how I have to approach things, because the moment I do that, all the misconceptions have to drop away,” Freeman said. “It goes from just a person in a chair to this is just another person, and the disability is just an added thing.”

But Freeman acknowledges he makes a significant first impression.

“Whether I want to or not, I have to deal with something most people don’t have to deal with, something very visible,” Freeman says.

While he favors blue jeans and plaid shirts like many young indie filmmakers, he looks and sounds like Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot.” The 1989 movie, one of Freeman’s favorites, is about an Irishman with cerebral palsy who became a renowned writer and artist.

Like that character, Freeman makes spastic movements and his speech is often hard to understand, but he wishes people would just ask him to repeat what he says.
“I can usually tell people who are putting on a face because they get a kind of the glassy look in their eyes, like they’re trying so hard to look at me,” Freeman says.
“I think people have a tendency to think it’s rude to admit they have no idea of what I just said.”

Schoonmaker had no such qualms, Freeman recalls.

“She was very down to earth. If she didn’t understand something she said so,” Freeman recalls.

The three-time Oscar winner asked Freeman to send her some of his best work, but he’s waiting until he feels like “The Last Taboo” is perfect. He’ll also submit the documentary to various festivals and theaters, as he has done with some of his previous films.

Freeman’s first foray as a director screened at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in 2008. Starring Paul Horn of “Gone Baby Gone,” it’s a narrative adaptation of the poem, “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. His project, “I Care: A Documentary About Independent Living,” led to Freeman’s selection, out of filmmakers from across the world, for the Very Special Arts/AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Apprenticeship program. 
And last year, another of Freeman’s narrative movies, “Meet Annabelle,” was chosen as the official selection at the 2012 Picture This Film Festival, the International Disability Film Festival and the 2011 Arlington International Film Festival.

Freeman’s passion started as a hobby in grade school. With his parents’ video camera, he enlisted his brother and a friend to shoot various stories, including their own version of “Titanic.”

It was not until Freeman went to Brookline High School that he decided to make movies his career. He’d been involved in the school’s theater program, where he felt most at home among the actors and stage crew. Then, as a junior, he took a video production class that he says opened up a new realm of creative possibilities.

Freeman says his “a-ha” moment came after his first shoot.

“We came back to the classroom and looked at what we’d shot, and I remember thinking ‘Wow, this is amazing. We just captured a moment in time that will never happen in that same way again,’ ” he says. “And I thought, I can craft it and mold it to be what I want so that it’s not just a scene, it’s manipulating to share ideas and move people in some way.”

It was at that moment that he decided that he’d study film in college.

While he continued to make films after graduating high school in 2005, Freeman’s college path has been circuitous. Freeman first went to work for City Year in Boston — where he produced a recruitment film — before starting at Fitchburg State University in the fall of 2007. He was “miserable” in what he describes as a “toxic” housing situation, and he transferred the following year to UMass Amherst. That wasn’t the ideal fit because UMass didn’t have a film production major, so he transferred last year to Emerson College, where he has flourished. Freeman expects to graduate in 2014 with a BFA in media production.

Freeman says he’s had a lot of help along the way, including school aides and personal care attendants who assist him with physical needs. And from the start his parents have been his fiercest advocates in every aspect of his life.

He is also thankful that his early film work attracted the attention of a Boston-based production company No Limits Media, which financed his narrative short, “The Raven.”

“If it weren’t for No Limits’ Artemis Joukowsky, Dan Jones and Steve Marx, who saw my vision and what I was capable of, I would not be where I am today,” Freeman says.

Beyond college, Freeman plans to work as a professional filmmaker. But whatever he does, he says his overarching goal is to make a mark.

“My work is a testament to who I am, not what I appear to look like on the outside,” Freeman says. “We have a responsibility to make a difference in the world, to make a mark in society and not take back and let the world go by.”

His latest film tests his resolve to do just that. In “The Last Taboo,” Freeman says he’s aiming to challenge and change the misconception that people with disabilities can’t or don’t want to have sex.

“Because of people’s fear of getting involved with someone who looks different from their ideal picture of who is considered attractive by society’s standards and are afraid to try something that isn’t by their definition ‘normal,’ the topic remains a taboo,” Freeman says.

Disabilities expert and author Gary Karp, who appears in the documentary, is watching Freeman’s career with great interest. He says the 25-year-old will encounter challenging first impressions, and he may get shut down by people who quickly assume he’s not capable.

“What could disable Alexander is not his disability but external attitudes,” Karp says.

Freeman agrees. “What I do think is going to be difficult in my life is changing people’s assumptions, but it’s nothing I can’t do. It might be fun.”

Both hope the film industry will move toward portraying characters with disabilities without making the story about the disability.

“Alexander is going to develop characters where it’s the people, and their disabilities are secondary,” Karp says. “We’ll see the impact of their disability on their lives and how people respond to it, but on the whole we’re just people in world. ‘The Last Taboo’ is about that.

“He’s going after one of the most insidious and mistaken beliefs that sexuality isn’t part of life for a person with a disability, that somehow they’re not complete. I’m really hopeful that Alexander will convey the universal richness of what this story of disability has to tell,” Karp says.

That universal theme is woven throughout Freeman’s narrative films and documentaries, culminating with “The Last Taboo.” It’s also a theme he tries to live by.

“We might be in a chair, but everything still works. I’ve got a heart. I’ve got a mind, and I’ve got a body,” Freeman said. “Everyone deserves to be touched. I need to have the attitude of ‘Hey, I may not have done it before but, yeah, let’s give it a try.’ ”

Remembering Bob Greenberg, blind sports commentator at WBEZ in Chicago

From Scott Simon at NPR:

Bob Greenberg died this week at the age of 67. He was a sportscaster who happened to be blind. When I've told people he's one of the most extraordinary people I've ever worked with, there's usually polite incomprehension: A blind sportscaster?

Bob worked for WBEZ in Chicago, and he could be cranky, blustery and loud. But it was a marvel to watch him work.

A helper would read box scores to him every day, and Bob would pound a Braille keyboard to punch them into cards. If a football player caught a pass, Bob would rifle through his cards like a riverboat gambler, find the dots and stats he wanted and announce, "That's the third fourth-down pass Baschnagel has caught this year!"

In the early 1980s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could be a little sullen with reporters. After a hard game on a cold night, the press cornered him in the locker room, barking questions. He turned with a cold stare, and saw Bob Greenberg, dressed in rumpled, ill-buttoned clothes, holding a white cane and a microphone.
"How'd you get here?" Kareem asked.

"Not hard," said Bob, who then explained how he knew the exact number of steps to bring him to the Lake Street "L" station; how he felt for the right combination of coins to put in the turnstile; and then the number of steps to take along West Madison to Chicago Stadium.

"Maybe that's why I can remember so many stats about the game," Bob said.

Abdul-Jabbar paused to take that in and finally replied, "Ask your question, sir." Athletes often disdain reporters as snoops and second-guessers who couldn't catch a ball that's laid in their lap. But Kareem saw Bob Greenberg and seemed to think, "You've worked hard to get here, too."

I don't recall Bob saying there was anything he couldn't figure out how to do because he was blind. But I came to feel that having to count and calculate most every step, every day of your life, could make any man a little cranky.

Bob told me once that over the years, he had painted in his mind's eye what most every play in sports — indeed, what most every item on Earth, from beetles to roses to whales — looked like. But he said he couldn't quite "see" home runs. They had a distinct sound: the single stroke of the bat, the crowd's hopes and cheers rising as the ball sailed into the stands, or just fell into a long, dismaying out.

"I sure wish I could see that," Bob said.

Alfonso Soriano of the Cubs hit a home run out of Wrigley Field yesterday. I like to think Bob saw it.

Jack Markell, National Governors Association chairman, says he will focus on jobs for people with disabilities

From The Huffington Post:

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The new chairman of the National Governors Association plans to focus his year at the helm on developing ways that states can help those with disabilities find jobs.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), who assumed the top spot at the close of the NGA's annual conference July 15, wants the association to research and put together a toolkit for states seeking to develop programs for hiring people with disabilities, including in partnerships with business. He succeeds Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R), who focused his chairmanship year on state economic development.

Markell (pictured) told The Huffington Post that he first became interested in the issue of jobs for the disabled -- primarily individuals with developmental disabilities -- about nine years ago when as Delaware's treasurer he was touring a company and met a 25-year-old disabled man who was making T-shirts. Markell said he asked the man what he was doing before he got the job.

"He told me that he sat at home for six years watching television with his parents," Markell recalled. "[The job] was a huge impact for his quality of life."

According to Labor Department statistics for 2011, 17.8 percent of Americans with a disability are employed, compared to 63.6 percent of those with no disability. The statistics also show that 15.0 percent of individuals with disabilities are unemployed, compared to 8.7 percent of those without disabilities.

Markell plans to convene a series of regional meetings around the country to meet with business leaders and advocates for the disabled in order to review what is working and what isn't. He said he intends to use the forums to develop blueprints for governors on how to implement the good ideas in their states. The regional meeting approach is similar to how Heineman pursued his economic development initiative.

Markell also said that he will reach out directly to business leaders, noting that several companies have had success in their efforts to increase hiring of people with disabilities. He cited an initiative by Walgreens and added that other companies, including Best Buy, IBM, Merck and Procter & Gamble, are working on similar programs.

According to Markell, Walgreens has created distribution centers where a large percentage of workers have developmental disabilities and the company provides coaches to help them. He said he would like to explore how the latter strategy could be made feasible for small businesses, possibly through the sharing of coaches.
Within his own state of Delaware, Markell said he has not really pushed this issue since becoming governor in 2009 but he intends to do so as part of the learning process during his year running the NGA.

The NGA chairmanship rotates annually between the two parties, with the vice chairman ascending to the chairman's slot the next year. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) was elected to the vice chairmanship on Sunday.

Markell's initiative is a departure from prior NGA projects in its scope. Previous chairmen have tended to focus on broader topics, including Heineman's economic development plan, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's focus on infrastructure in 2008-2009, and former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening's smart growth initiative in 2000-2001. Markell said that he wanted to go a different route.

"I was looking for something to have a big impact on," Markell said.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Canadian short documentary spotlights struggle of people with disabilities in the workplace

From Metro News in Canada:

A Nigerian immigrant who was stunned to see someone with Down syndrome working the aisles of a Kanata dollar store has snagged an award for his documentary about a program helping special needs students get jobs.

“Back in Nigeria when I was a child growing up, we would stone these type of people,” said Wisdom Sanni (pictured) , who came to Canada in 2008. “Families who had kids with Down syndrome would keep them isolated and hidden away. So it was interesting to see them in a public setting exchanging and mixing with other people.”

Inspired by what he saw, Sanni followed the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s Adaptive Learning Program for three months to create “The Genius in Me,” a short film for his documentary production class at Algonquin College. In June he received an award from the board for his work on the project.

“When I started the documentary it was hard for me because I was standoffish because of my upbringing,” he said. “But after one week with them I had a different view.”

“With proper training, people with Down syndrome can contribute greatly to the community. They want to be creative and they wan to do something. They don’t want our sympathy.”

In the adaptive learning program students learn how to talk to customers, their boss and work in an office, along with other life skills, such as learning how to cook and garden for themselves.

In the process of making the film, Sanni said, he made lots of friends and now feels even more comfortable in Canada. “Because of this documentary people want me to come by their place and have a barbeque,” he said.

“I’ve learned so much and I’m happy that I’m in this part of the world,” said Sanni, “where all you need is just to think something and you can do it.”

Legally blind contestant competes in Miss USA Florida pageant

From The Sun-Sentinel in Florida:

Connor Boss (pictured), who will be wearing the Miss Delray Beach sash Saturday night in the Miss Florida USA pageant at Broward College, isn't much on talking about herself.

The 18-year-old Royal Palm Beach resident will admit to being “really excited” about the pageant, her fifth since she began competing by winning the Harvest Queen crown in Belle Glade as a 16-year-old. She'll brag on her older sister attending Florida State, her mom being a teacher at Everglades Elementary, her dad's work with the Broward Sheriff's Office fire-rescue department.

She tells you she just graduated from Glades Day School, forgetting to mention her 4.2 GPA and that she was senior class president. If you ask her, she'll describe her high school accomplishments in track and field, where she ran the 800 meters for four years. But she'll downplay her 2-minute, 45-second personal best: “I wasn't very good,” she says.

She also doesn't see the point in mentioning that she's legally blind.

No, to pry that out of her you need to call back and ask her specifically to confirm what you discovered after your first conversation about the pageant: That she has Stargardt's disease, a retina-ravaging disorder that presented itself when Connor was 8, turning typical 20/20 vision into 2400/2600 vision and rendering the world a hazy blur.

“When she heard you found out, she turned to me and said, ‘Oh, no…',” says her mom, Traci Boss, during the second call. “She does not want to be treated differently. She does not want sympathy from people.”
Connor doesn't drive a car (“a huge bummer,” she says); she excelled at school with the help of special magnifiers, enlarged worksheets, books on CD and having tests read to her; and she has a lot of trouble with stairs. Not a good thing for a beauty pageant contestant.

Each competitor in the Miss Florida USA pageant, the winner of which represents the state in the Miss USA judging, must walk a predetermined pattern to hit certain marks onstage at Bailey Hall Saturday night. Connor, who navigates her way through the pageant largely by sound and memory, will get extra rehearsal time to count out her steps onstage.

At last year's Miss Florida USA pageant, when Connor finished as second runner-up in the teen category, she stumbled on the stairs in the swimsuit segment. Unless there is bright-colored tape on the edge of each stair, they all blend together for Connor. She doesn't know what the stage set-up will be this year, but isn't concerned how it might affect her poise.

“I'm just gonna do it. I'm gonna do it to it!” she says brightly.

Executive producer Grant Gravitt has been with the Miss Florida USA pageant since 1978 and says Connor is the first legally blind contestant in pageant history.

“But she doesn't play that card. You will never hear her mention that,” says Gravitt, who has known Connor for more than three years. “She's just cool, cool. Very inspirational.”

The Miss Florida USA pageant will be televised around the state Saturday night , including WPLG and WTVK, but Connor won't use the same cues that viewers will to compare herself to the rest of the women. She has little sense of what she looks like and can't see other contestants' faces unless she gets uncomfortably close and uses her peripheral vision. Bodies are just blurry shapes.

“I have to judge people by their personality. Not to talk pageant-y, but I like to think that beauty comes from within. It's important to exude that, to try to be kind to everyone,” Connor says.

Traci Boss hopes her daughter's story is an antidote to the “terrible stereotype” of beauty pageants as focused exclusively on visual superficialities. The Harvest Queen crown two years ago turned Connor into a new person, she says.

“There was a change in her, in her self-confidence, and she's just kept going,” Traci says, rattling off a list of Connor's subsequent volunteer work, mentoring efforts and speaking engagements. In the fall, she'll start college at FSU. “She has overcome every obstacle. If [her pageant appearance] inspires people, that's even better.”

Connor herself, however, will admit that she has not overcome every obstacle.

“I walk into the men's bathroom all the time. All the time,” she says with a laugh. “Usually, by the time I figure it out, it's ‘Whoops! Sorry!' People think I'm crazy.”

Sunday, July 8, 2012

iPad band unlocks autistic students' creativity in New York City school

From FOX News:

They’ve got the beat.

At first listen you would never know that music created at a New York City school was being played by students with special needs, nor that they were using iPads as instruments.

Music teacher Adam Goldberg has successfully integrated the iPad into his class, creating an iPad band of talented musicians at P177Q, a school for special-needs students based in Queens.

“Some of the students in this school who are very low functioning, are really making music,” Goldberg tells FoxNews.com.

Most of Goldberg’s students are on the Autism Spectrum and often have difficulty communicating, socializing and concentrating. Yet, with an iPad in front of them, they have been able to play complex music compositions like "Space Circus" by Chick Corea, a famous jazz composer.

Servicing more than 500 students, each with their own special need, Principal Kathy Posa points out that each “has their own personality, so it’s up to us to find what works best for each child.”

The iPad's intuitive ease of use enables the students to get past the technical hurdles and steep learning curves of traditional instruments so they can start expressing themselves through music straight away.
“So many barriers are broken,” Goldberg says.

And beyond the physical constraints the iPad has helped lift, Goldberg says he's witnessed a social phenomenon occur in his classroom. Students who traditionally had issues communicating their wants or needs seemed to suddenly be unlocked by their music, expressing themselves creatively. "I see them supporting each other. They compliment each other. They help each other out," Goldberg told FoxNews.com. "It is just magical, really a beautiful thing to see."

Because of these small miracles, Posa has been an advocate for the arts in spite of budget cuts, highlighting the undeniable benefits the programs have, especially with children who have extraordinary needs.

“We use anything we can to make them creative, and it helps with their behavior as well, reinforcing them to the point that they know they can do something, making it less frustrating for them as well,” Posa told FoxNews.com.

Witnessing some of the magic firsthand, student Jason Haughton, who is not usually very vocal, did not want to let go of the microphone when introducing himself on camera. In the same way, the iPad has become a voice for all of the students.

Normally assisted, Haughton later opened up an app on his iPad to play his instrument -- all on his own.
PS177’s digital orchestra has not only learned long pieces of music, but has also produced their own spontaneous compositions.

“These students are learning to work together," Posa told FoxNews.com "They are learning to share, and to cooperate, and to be like a team, because that’s what is really going on when people play music together. It’s like a team.”

The students jam out using Garageband, Apple's popular music app, along with a variety of other apps like Animoog, MIDI Touch, Thumbjam, Bloom and Trope.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Norwegian director to shoot "The Down's Detective" in Prague

From Screen Daily:

Norwegian director Bard Breien will shoot his second feature The Down’s Detective in the Czech Republic, it was announced yesterday at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

The film is a Norwegian-Czech-Danish-German co-production, and it will start shooting in late August.

The story is about a man with Down’s syndrome who wants to be a private detective. He has to pursue a former ice-skating legend who is now down on his luck. Svein Andre Hofso, who has Down’s syndrome, will play the lead [he is pictured in character].

Breien, who also wrote the script, said: “I want to tell an entertaining, exciting and touching story that will challenge the audience. It will be an adventure with one foot planted firmly in a well-known genre where a lonely private detective has to solve a mystery in a cold, dark and hostile world, while the other foot sets out in a completely unknown direction. The Down’s Detective is a film that sparkles with laughter as well as strong emotions, while the whole story and the main protagonist in particular are constantly balancing on the thin edge between tragedy and comedy.”

Producer Pål Røed added: “Just before Christmas 2011, we set off to scout the Czech Republic and Hungary as potential destinations. We were hoping that financial possibilities, lower production costs and different locations would enable us to make The Down’s Detective in a better way than back home. We knew that Bård had a name in the Czech Republic, but after one intense day in Prague, we realized how strong the Czechs felt about his film, his humour and his writing style. It did not take long before we cancelled our trip to Hungary, stayed a few more days in Prague and decided to make the film in the Czech Republic.”
Prague will stand in for Oslo in the film.

Friland’s production partners are Nimbus (Denmark), Unafilm (Germany) and Evolution Films (Czech Republic).

TrustNordisk will handle international sales and Cinemart has Czech rights.

The film has received financial support from the Norwegian Film Institute, the Nordic Film and Television Fund, the Danish Film Institute, the Czech State Fund for the Support and Development of Czech Cinema, and Eurimage.

“We are truly grateful for the support we have received in the Czech Republic. The Czech State Fund for the Support and Development of Czech Cinema really understands the potential of Bard Breien’s second film. It is a great honour for our company as well as for Czech cinema to be part of such a significant film project”, said Evolution Films’ producer Pavel Berčík.

Breiein’s first film The Art of Negative Thinking won the best director prize at KVIFF in 2007. The film went on to win the Czech Lion for best foreign film and then was adapted as a stage production.

New documentary, "Austin Unbound," explores journey of Deaf transgender man

By BA Haller
© Media dis&dat

In the new documentary, “Austin Unbound,” which was seven years in the making, the filmmakers beautifully explore the journey of a Deaf transgender man.

It provides excellent insight into the life of Austin, who knew as a small child that he was not in the correct body.  The documentary follows Austin as he prepares for and then receives his double mastectomy.  It also features in-depth interviews with his family, friends and girlfriend.

Filmmaker Eliza Greenwood said at the screening of “Austin Unbound” at the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) meeting in June that her background as a Gallaudet University graduate and as a hearing sister fluent in sign language drew her to the project.

Greenwood began the project in 2004, when she got permission from Austin to begin filming him. Sel Staley also served as director on the project, and Mara Green worked as assistant director on the film. 

Green said at SDS that they wanted the film to be situated in the “queer-centric and sign-centric community.”
The final 45-minute film retains that emphasis.

Austin makes it clear throughout the film that he identifies as a straight man. He gained support from the Deaf community in his journey. He and his friends created a fundraiser for his top surgery with an American Sign Language (ASL) Comedy Night. Austin performed, as did a number of other deaf supporters.

“The Deaf community would be different if not for him. Austin is such a leader in the trans world. He’s so open. He doesn’t care what others think,” a friend from the Comedy Night says in the film. 

The film is unique in that it is entirely in sign language and captions/subtitles; even the voices of hearing people are not heard. But that adds to its power.

Austin’s family members are featured in numerous interviews that illustrate the strength that can come from a supportive family.  Austin’s mother, Pam, talks honestly about his early childhood when he rejected everything girl-oriented. She made her peace with his transformation by the time Austin was in high school and supported his decision to dress and identify as male.

Interestingly, his mother’s only regret: that he changed his name.  He is the oldest of four (he has three sisters), and she said loved the girl’s name she chose for him. Some might think she is complaining, but it is a sweet moment in which Austin’s mother illustrates how even supportive family members struggle to accept a transgender person in their family.

In the most wonderful scene in the film, Austin shows his scars from the double mastectomy to his  grandmother, who smiles, hugs him and tells him she is so happy for his successful surgery.

A significant portion of the film is devoted to Austin’s relationship to his girlfriend, Lola. She is there for him in every way. As she goes on this journey with him, Lola is able to reflect on Austin before and after his top surgery. 

Lola says his self confidence has increased after the top surgery, and he seems freer since the surgery.

Austin said earlier in the film that he felt he was wearing a Halloween costume as a child when he was forced to dress as a girl.

After his surgery, he summed up the positive change in his life: “I feel like a burden has been lifted.”

A note about screenings of “Austin Unbound:”

If you would like to host a screening, contact the filmmakers here:

The film will be in the following Film Festivals in 2012:

Vancouver, BC, Canada, Queer Film Festival, August 16-26, http://www.queerfilmfestival.ca/

The Other Film Festival, Melbourne, Australia, Sept. 19-23, http://artsaccess.com.au/the-other-film-festival/ 

Lisbon, Portugal, Queer Film Festival, Sept. 21-29, http://queerlisboa.pt/en/

Focus Film Festival, Chico, Calif., Oct. 11-12, http://www.farnorthernrc.org/focusfilmfestival/about_festival.htm

Medal Quest website showcases Paralympics in multimedia for fans

From WGBH press release. Pictured is Paralymic archer Russell Wolfe, who has a blog on the site.

WGBH Boston launched MEDAL QUEST: American Athletes and the Paralympic Games (pbs.org/medalquest), an original, multi-platform digital project that will offer an unprecedented look into these high-stakes Games. Produced by WGBH Boston and presented under agreement with the United States Olympic Committee and the International Paralympics Committee, MEDAL QUEST showcases these remarkable competitions at the highest level, while following America’s elite athletes as they train for and compete in the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

“These competitors battle for the same gold, silver, and bronze medals as Olympic athletes, in the same stadiums, in the presence of the same flaming torch,” says WGBH Executive Producer Judith Vecchione. “Some of these athletes race or play tennis and basketball in wheelchairs. Others play goalball, a kind of dodgeball for the blind, or they swim with missing limbs or neurological impairments. They are powerful, highly trained, proud to represent their countries…and they are physically disabled.”

Through a comprehensive website, and a combined presence via multiple social media platforms including Facebook Twitter, PBS’s video player, and blog coverage, MEDAL QUEST will ask its audiences a key question: “What makes a champion?” Is it skill, training, technology? Is it support from family and friends? Or is it something more?

The MEDAL QUEST project will allow audiences to find their own answers as they engage directly with America’s Paralympic athletes, witnessing firsthand the talent, emotions, and drive behind their battles and triumphs, wins and heartbreaks.

Launched March 7 and continuing with new videos through October, this multi-tiered Web series will look at Paralympic history and profile the next generation of champions. It also will present the newest group to join the Paralympic movement: wounded “warrior athletes” from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Each month, MEDAL QUEST will spotlight four athletes, featuring bios, photography, and blog entries written by the athletes themselves. Additionally, the project offers videos that will introduce rival competitors, tools of the trade, and great athletes and moments from past competitions.

While the Games are a highly anticipated and widely followed event in countries abroad, MEDAL QUEST offers American audiences their first in-depth look at the Games. Fans will learn about the rules and best players in the 19 summer Paralympic sports, including track and field, equestrian, judo, goalball, and much more. Additionally, features such as “Ask the Athlete,” and “Hometown Heroes” will allow users to interact directly with athletes as they train and compete in the 2012 games, kicking off in London on August 29, 2012.

For opportunities to follow and connect with some of the world’s most elite athletes, and for an up-close, in-depth look at the Paralympic Games, visit MEDAL QUEST at pbs.org/medalquest.

London 2012: Blade runner Oscar Pistorius set to make history at Olympics

from BBC News:

Oscar Pistorius is set to be the first double amputee runner at the Olympic Games after being picked by South Africa for the 400m at London 2012. 

The 25-year-old has also been selected for the 4x400m relay squad.

"Today is truly one of the proudest days of my life," said Pistorius, who will also compete in the Paralympics.
"It is a real honour and I am so pleased that years of hard work, determination and sacrifice have all come together."

Pistorius appeared to have missed the chance of competing in the individual 400m after he narrowly failed to clock the 'A' standard time for a second time as required by South Africa's Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). 

But his inclusion in the relay team opened up his chance to also race in the individual event.

"As I have said many times before, we are not taking passengers to London," said Sascoc president Gideon Sam.
"Everyone has met selection criteria and are genuine Olympic Games material, either now or for 2016. I wish them all the best."

Pistorius ran in the individual 400m at the 2011 World Championships in South Korea but did not progress beyond the semi-finals.

He also ran in the relay but, after running in the heats, he was omitted from the final as South Africa went on to claim silver.

Pistorius is known as the 'Blade Runner' because of the prosthetic carbon fibre limbs he runs with. He was cleared to compete against able-bodied athletes in 2008 when an IAAF ruling that his blades gave him an unfair advantage was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Pistorius will also compete at the Paralympic Games in London in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 4x100m relay.

"I have a phenomenal team behind me who have helped get me here and I, along with them, will now put everything we can into the final few weeks of preparations before the Olympic Games where I am aiming to race well, work well through the rounds, post good times and maybe even a personal best time on the biggest stage of them all," added Pistorius.

"I am also hugely excited to then be competing to defend my three Paralympic titles at the Paralympic Games.

"I believe we will see some amazing times posted and I am very much looking forward to what will be an incredible Olympics and Paralympics in London."