Filmmaker Interview

POV: What initially drew you to this film, and what have you learned since then?

Jamie Stobie: The idea for the film came to me through a friend, a technology consultant for a school district in the Bay Area. He had started bringing in old computers and rebuilding them for kids in the district, and he noticed how helpful this technology was for the kids with disabilities. He wanted to let other people know how useful the technology was.

My background is in science films, and so I was very interested in the technologies. Initially I thought we should highlight cutting-edge technology, but with time I realized that the important thing wasn't the technology so much as the accessibility. The technology in Freedom Machines isn't space age, it's really technology that has become ubiquitous for all of us: computers, keyboards, telephones. And it's been amazing to see how technology has been helpful and yet how inaccessible ordinary public and private places can still be for people with disabilities.

The most interesting thing I learned is how the word "disability" becomes a label.
There's a great dissonance between those of us who feel we're normal and those
whom we label as disabled. We're often afraid to make eye contact with people
in wheelchairs, who don't look quite "normal." And that changed me forever, when
I realized that the barriers that divide us are not so much physical as cultural,
that they grow out of the way that we look at people.

POV: What was the biggest challenge you faced in making this film?

Stobie: I don't have any visible disabilities, and it was very hard for me to get that perspective. We worked very closely with an activist disability group in northern California because we realized we really had to have their perspective. We screened the film many times for people in this community. We would either end up with a film that the filmmakers liked, that people with disabilities hated, or we would end up with a cut that people with disabilities thought was right, but the filmmakers would say didn't work because the story wasn't there. It was really a challenge.

One friend who did the sound on the film has spina bifida, and he hated the film when he first saw it. He had this incredibly negative emotional reaction to it, and it was a very bad day for me. My husband asked me what was wrong and I said, "The problem is, I don't have a disability." I felt that way a lot when I was working on this film. I asked myself, "Why I am I doing this? I'm the wrong person to do this." I wrestled a lot with the thought that the film should be made by a filmmaker who really understood the issues. Ultimately, I told myself, I have thirty years of experience in filmmaking, I'm going to do the best I can to represent this point of view.

POV: How did you find the people you featured in the film?

Dr. Kent Cullers

Dr. Kent Cullers is a blind physicist who leads the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.

Stobie: From the beginning, we worked with an organization in
Berkeley called the Alliance for Technology Access, a network of assistive technology
advocates started in the '80s by the mother of Shoshana, whom we see in the film.
There are over forty ATA centers throughout the United States, so when we started
looking for characters, we went to the directors in several different places
because we wanted to show a wide variety of people from different parts of the
country and from all age groups. But how do you survey the fields and also make
it a personal story? We visited many of these centers throughout the United States
and we did dozens of interviews. I was just instantly drawn to each of the people
in this film. One of the complaints that I heard constantly while I was making
this film was that there are so few role models for people with disabilities
in the media, especially in some areas of the country where people are terribly
isolated. The people in the film really wanted to tell their stories and I just
opened the door.

POV: How did you capture the experience of using assistive technologies?

Stobie: That was one of the really crucial aspects of the film. You can't look at too many laptop computers, computer screens, and keyboards. I've seen other filmmakers try to do that, but it just doesn't work. We wanted to let the issues of technology and accessibility come out through people's day-to-day experiences, where universal truths come through. Technology is technology. It's wonderful and it can really make a difference in people's lives, but we wanted to get a general audience interested in this issue, so we needed to look at people's lives.

POV: What are your hopes for the film?

Stobie: A study done a few years before the film got started
found that only 25 or 30 percent of people with disabilities use any kind of
assistive technology. What they realized was that the people one would normally
ask about technology — teachers, health care providers, community technology
centers — had very little knowledge of assistive technology themselves.
That's what we're hoping the film will be really useful for. 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.

We also want to let people with disabilities know that there are laws that guarantee their rights to participate in this society on an equal footing with everyone else. Thirty years ago, a law was passed guaranteeing an equal education to children with disabilities. When that law was passed one million children — one million — entered the public school system. There are 54 million people in this country with disabilities, and as our population ages, that number is just going to grow by leaps and bounds. It is a huge part of our society that affects all of us. One purpose of the film is to let people know about the activism that has brought about these laws. There's a core group of activists within the disability community who have made enormous changes for people. They have fought for opening up the public schools, they have fought for making technology accessible, making public places and private places accessible, fought for very big changes, culminating in the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

POV: Where do we stand now, and what more needs to be done?

Stobie: I was in Thailand and Spain recently. In other countries, there are no curb cuts. There's so much more work to be done in this country, but the United States is still a leader in the world when it comes to accessibility in the workplace, in public spaces, in transportation, and a leader in civil rights laws.

I think the most important thing that people need to look at right now, in this country, is resources for independent living. It's actually much less expensive than putting someone in a nursing home forever. But sadly, there doesn't seem to be much change in that direction. Resources are still going to the outdated and limited model of care-taking, which has a very limited definition of what a person with disabilities is, can be, can do.