How This Media Platform Is Creating Powerful Films by and for the Disabled Community
Rising Above is our new series that spotlights creatives overcoming challenges to get their stories out to the world. For this first edition, Storyhunter freelance writer Bill Arceneaux, who identifies as an individual with a disability, spoke with the storytellers of a new streaming platform conceived as a place for films by people with disabilities. Through seeing their work, audiences can learn from a group that’s more than ready to speak out.
In the recently released film CODA, a teen struggles to navigate high school and daily life as a young girl growing up. She’s also the only hearing member of her all deaf family. The word Coda stands for “child of deaf adults,” which plays into this story as a source of great conflict in communication and understanding between the members of this all-American household.
Deaf actor Troy Kotsur, who plays the father in the film, is nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year and is ready for a change in how people with disabilities are seen on screen. “I’m tired of deaf people being portrayed as a victim,” he was quoted as saying in this L.A. Times article. According to the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, 26 percent of Americans identify as individuals with disabilities, but only about 3 percent of characters in media are from the community.
Representation matters and accessibility to diverse and inclusive stories is crucial. So why aren’t disabled people better represented in film and television?
Jennifer Price, CEO of the Disability Media Network (DiMe) — a new streaming outlet — set out to solve this problem. She seeks to craft new paths for creators and creations, story by story, and at a grassroots level. Most notably, all the content either features or is created by people with disabilities. “We are offering a full slate of entertainment, from movies to episodic series, and sports. We hope to eventually get into news where the news is being reported by disabled anchors.”
DiMe has arrived at a dire time for most disabled Americans, who wish to see people like themselves represented in the stories they watch. Steven Nguyen, a disability rights advocate, youth mentor, and wheelchair user from the New Orleans area, feels that “having real-life disabled actors playing disabled characters in movies and other media brings authenticity and representation to the forefront. It absolutely needs to happen more.” For Jennifer Price, that is exactly what’s at the heart of her project. “I decided to create the outlet, so disabled content creators can tell their stories their way and viewers can turn on the television and see people who look like them.”
Jennifer’s work as a disability law attorney inspired her to start the platform. “While I don’t identify as a person with a disability, I have family members with disabilities and appreciate the significance that comes from representation as a minority woman,” she said. “Seeing yourself represented in pop culture and art can validate you and I think we all want to be validated for who we really are.”
DiMe features content across genres, from documentary to narrative fiction, from experimental to even cooking shows. Each filmmaker featured on the service has a unique voice and a stylistic specialty, which puts the platform in a great place to rival other independent streaming companies.
Of the films available, The Duo stands out in particular. Directed by Jakiria Williams — a hard-of-hearing filmmaker and artist from Chicago — The Duo is about the day in the life of a young hard-of-hearing woman’s hearing aid. It’s a quick comedy at the cross-section of silliness and reality, where the assistive device has a bond with the person that’s strong and whimsical. Jakiria is that young woman, on and behind the camera. Providing insight into her work, Jakiria makes it clear what the single greatest conflict in her storytelling is.
“Growing up in the inner city of Chicago, I’ve always had to put on this sort of front and defensive mechanism when I go out to the city because that’s just how things go,” she said. “And translating that same kind of energy into my work, the obstacle I face would be to advocate myself and the work I want to speak about.”
In The Duo, which was captured as live-action but edited into a stop-motion style, Jakiria expresses what she refers to as a “cute and quirky” tale in a very accessible and approachable way. Achieving this kind of art can open minds and mend hearts. “We’re kind of teleporting into a different dimension [with art], and I think I find that really fascinating of that idea of transcendent experiences and how that directly translates to what that means to an audience that’s looking at a work that I produce,” Jakiria said.
While studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Jakiria formed a personal philosophy for visual arts. “The meaning of art comes down to what you have to say, how you say it, and what saying it will do for others around you,” she said.
Are things getting better for people with disabilities working in the media? Jakiria is optimistic: “We’re making progress in communication, and accessibility is becoming the number one thing in the world,” she said. “Being a deaf creator in what’s supposed to be a ‘normal hearing based world,’ there are tons of opportunities out there that’s going to allow us to have our voices heard, one way or another.”
Jakiria currently works with Signing Animation, a studio dedicated to inclusive storytelling and diverse hiring practices. She wants to contribute more films to DiMe that aren’t limited to one subject. “I’m excited to not just create content that’ll be related to the deaf and disability community in general, but also the overall demographics that I come from,” she said.
At DiMe, Jennifer Price and her team of creators want everyone to understand that people in the disability community shouldn’t be seen as those to pity, as though they are victims of some sort. And to suggest anything other than individualism is just incorrect and ignorant, she said. “Our definition of disability is not confined to one type. We are taking a broad approach to include visible and invisible disabilities,” she said.
To make it past the established roadblocks faced by creatives with disabilities who are trying to get their stories seen, it all comes down to confidence and will. “When you’re advocating for yourself and those around you, and you’re taking some of these bits and pieces and shoving it into the faces of people who are not familiar with it, you’re doing the right thing,” Jakiria said.
CODA, the movie, is a showcase of strength, not pity. If Troy Kotsur and the cast and crew of the film are any indications, “doing the right thing” will pay off for the disabled community eager for proper representation, as will DiMe’s efforts to move past media stereotypes.
By Bill Arceneaux, Storyhunter freelancer and independent writer