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The Best of Their Disabilities: Showcasing Special Needs on Screen

June 7, 2012
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Melissa Stockwell, one of the veterans featured in "Warrior Games" Photo courtesy of Renaud Brothers

The largest film festival in the country dedicated to promoting the awareness of and appreciation for the lives, stories and artistic expressions of differently abled people has found a new home in Philadelphia.
ReelAbilities will be showcasing films, displaying art exhibits and hosting conversations at venues throughout the area until Sunday evening.

The festival is the brainchild of Isaac Zablocki, the director of the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan. Zablocki says he felt "there was a great need to support the disability community. In the film world, people shy away from films on the topic of disabilities, especially here in America."

In an attempt to change that negative dynamic, he teamed up with Anita Altman, founder of UJA-Federation's Task Force on People with Disabilities, to create ReelAbilities in 2007.

"There's a complicated relationship historically between Judaism and disability," Zablocki says. "In the last 500 years, Judaism has really been stepping it up. One of our guiding mottos is, 'We are all created in the image of God.' This has been a concept which has led us" to find and advocate for festival programming.

The success of the original festival led Sherrie Eisman, director of the Center for Special Needs at the Jewish Family and Children's Service, to successfully petition to bring ReelAbilities to Philadelphia. JFCS, with the support of Venture Philanthropy Partners, has been increasing its special needs services, including the recent unveiling of specialneedsphilly.org, a searchable online directory of providers who serve the special needs community.

Of course, implementing all of these programs requires money. Eisman said that in addition to raising awareness of and sensitivity to special needs issues, hosting ReelAbilities could help raise funds for the programs. Already in the first few days, the festival has raised close to the $40,000 to $45,000 it hoped to amass.

The festival, which runs through June 10, has been a success by all accounts. Attendance has been running at or above expectations as people flock to see films about military amputees (Warrior Champions, showing June 8), a blind runner (Straight Lines, showing June 9) and an animated tale about an 8-year-old Australian girl's pen-pal friendship with a 44-year-old Jewish man with Asperger's Syndrome in New York (Mary and Max, showing June 10).

And what does the disabled community think about the festival? Both Eisman and Zablocki have been gratified by the positive responses. Eisman says that she has "had parents come and speak from the heart about how much they appreciated seeing these films, and how we should try to get them into schools."

Zablocki thinks there will be more films of this nature to show in schools, at festivals and on big screens everywhere.

"Hollywood is realizing that there is an audience for this." After all, he says, "this is the largest minority in America."

For more information and to buy tickets, call 267-256-2114 or go to: www.jfcsphilly.org/store/films/.

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