Access In Focus

Highlights from Access Reframed

By All Senses Go
December 18, 2020

Nothing about this year was typical for arts organizations. The pandemic left many nonprofits in devastated positions, forced to meet challenges with unbelievable creativity and flexibility—if they could survive at all.

Among those that endured, there was a common theme: space for new initiatives. With time no longer dedicated to normal operations, some nonprofits have stepped back to evaluate and expand their missions. We partnered this year with one such organization, Full Spectrum Features, to launch Access Reframed, a series of virtual conversations about media accessibility.

Full Spectrum Features is a Chicago-based nonprofit committed to increasing diversity in the independent film industry by producing, exhibiting and supporting the work of women, LGBTQ and minority filmmakers. Because their mission has always included key facets of diversity and equity, Full Spectrum Features wanted to do more to prioritize an integral community: disabled artists and audiences. With the help of an Illinois Humanities COVID-19 Emergency Relief Grant, we were able to work with Full Spectrum Features on expanding their mission to include people with disabilities.

Creator Conversation

Grishma Shah, artist and doctoral candidate, hosted our first panel, Creator Conversation, on Oct. 9, 2020, with moderator Day Al-Mohamed and filmmakers Reid Davenport, Rodney Evans and Jade Bryan. Their insightful conversation explored accessibility in screenings and festivals from both an audience and filmmaker perspective, collaboration in audio description and captioning, and incorporating access into the creative process.

During the conversation, Black Deaf filmmaker Jade Bryan emphasized the importance of festival accessibility beyond screenings. Bryan shared her experience funding ASL interpretation at the Sundance Film Festival. Interpretation at the festival was provided in a limited manner and did not include networking events—an important aspect of film festivals. To participate in all events, Bryan resorted to crowdfunding, gathering $15,000 to fund personal ASL interpretation.

“I have to stand up for myself and say networking is an important part of the process,” Bryan shared. “It’s not just me watching a panel or seeing a film being screened. I want to socialize. I want to get to know the filmmakers, the producers. I want to know the directors. I want to know who the investors are.”

Reid Davenport discussed venue accessibility and the importance of going beyond compliance. He noted that independent films are usually screened at smaller theaters, where accessibility is often an afterthought—a crucial reminder for indie filmmakers looking to broaden their audience.

“[Venues] might be ADA compliant,” Davenport said, “they may have a couple spaces for wheelchairs, but it’s not accessible… It’s not only about making sure that [wheelchair users] can get into the theater. It’s also about being able to sit with whoever you want.”

Another critical topic was collaboration in audio description and reframing access services as art. Rodney Evans discussed his creative and collaborative approach, saying, “[Audio description] brings life to the performance. I think of it as akin to poetry really, in terms of translating visuals into language in a very succinct way. You have to be careful not to step on audio or observational scenes where there’s other language going on because then it gets confusing. So there are these silent moments in the film that you have for audio description.”

Evans emphasized a key lesson for filmmakers new to accessibility: The later in the creative process filmmakers consider non-visual audience members, the harder it becomes to add description and create an equitable experience.

Presenter Conversation

Our second panel, Presenter Conversation, was hosted by Jason Matsumoto of Full Spectrum Features on Oct. 16, 2020. Day Al-Mohammed, founding member of FWD-Doc, joined again as moderator with panelists Cheryl Green, Emily Beitiks and Brenda Avila-Hanna. Representing the perspectives of disability advocates, artists, film festival leaders, equity directors, film exhibitors and distributors, the panelists led an engaging conversation exploring accessibility in screenings, distribution practices and audio engagement.

During the conversation, panelists gave advice for film festivals getting started with access. Emily Beitiks, co-director of Superfest, the world’s longest-running disability film festival, discussed starting small and planning for growth.

Beitiks shared that many filmmakers and organizers have gone to her feeling unsure how to start their access journeys because they can’t offer everything audio described, captioned or with ASL interpretation. Though Beitiks acknowledged that full accessibility should be the goal, starting small with a few accessible screenings and an access request statement can be a good middle-ground. From there, filmmakers can begin building toward an entirely accessible program.

Brenda Avila-Hanna and Cheryl Green from New Day Films, a filmmaker-run distribution company, discussed decentering and reframing accessibility as meaningful steps toward inclusion.

“We’re trying to push for decentering [New Day Films],” Avila-Hanna said. Decentering means moving “away from what has always been the center of knowledge, the center of the standard way we do things, what seems to be acceptable and professional. When we do that, we find where we connect in different spaces.”

Born and raised in Mexico, Avila-Hanna used captions as a teaching mechanism while learning English. Though English language learners weren’t the original intended audience for closed captioning, Avila-Hanna said they are a testament to how decentering helps filmmakers reach more people and achieve greater equity.

During the Creator and Presenter Conversations, panelists discussed the responsibility of ensuring access. “Whose responsibility is it?” Day Al-Mohamed asked during the Presenter Conversation. With so many people involved—filmmakers, exhibitors, festival organizers, funders—Al-Mohamed noted that many simply say, “That’s not my job.”

The panelists made clear that access is everyone’s responsibility. If you have a role to play in the creation, distribution or presentation of a film, then access should be part of your job. Of note, Cheryl Green encouraged allies to take responsibility by asking questions and starting conversations.

“Even if you don’t ever need captions or audio description,” Green said, “if you see a film screening advertised on Facebook, drop a comment in there: Will this presentation be captioned or have ASL interpreters or audio description? Just ask it… We’ve got to get it out in the public more. If you do know about these access features, go ahead and dialogue about it.”

To learn more and watch the full Access Reframed conversations, visit: