Did you know that there are an estimated 54 million people with disabilities living in the United States? That nearly 70 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are unemployed? And that fewer than 25 percent of people with disabilities who could be helped by assistive technology are using it? POV’s Freedom Machines, which first aired in 2004, takes a look at disability through the lens of assistive technology, which include devices like refreshable Braille displays, alternate keyboards, voice recognition systems, and more. The film is being rebroadcast this week on select PBS stations (schedules vary, so check your local listings).

Learn more about Freedom Machinesat POV’s companion website for the film.

In the film, high school student Latoya Nesmith of Albany, New York, dreams of becoming a translator at the United Nations as she completes her classroom assignments using a keyboard that mitigates her limited dexterity. Floyd Stewart, paralyzed in mid-life by a car accident, uses assistive technologies to run Middle Tennessee’s Center for Independent Living. Blind physicist Dr. Kent Cullers taught computers to do what his ears can do, and now leads the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. Susanna Sweeney-Martini is completing her college education in Seattle with the aid of a power wheelchair and voice-input software. The “freedom machines,” used by the characters, show the exhilarating possibilities for the disabled, but the film also shows that the existence of the technology is not enough to ensure its use.

Jackie Brand, founder of the Alliance for Technology Access and mother of one of the women profiled in Freedom Machines, says: “It’s a terribly frustrating thing to look at something that you know would change your life so enormously and be so powerful for you, and to know it’s not to be had because you don’t have the resources and the society has not decided that it’s important enough for you to have.”

Filmmaker Jamie StobieFilmmaker Jamie Stobie says, “We want viewers to ask questions like, ‘How do I get that?’ and to seek out more information about particular technologies. There are tools out there that can really make a difference in people’s lives.”

When the film aired in 2004, POV viewers visited our discussion board to talk about the film. You can read their thoughts and tell us what you have to say in the comments below. Do you or someone you love need better access to assistive technology? Has technology transformed your daily experiences? What more is needed?

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Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.