Film fest chronicles the disabled

It's fun at the pool in this scene from "Come As You Are," the film that kicks off the ReelAbilities: Greater DC Disabilities Film Festival
It’s fun at the pool in this scene from “Come As You Are,” the film that kicks off the ReelAbilities: Greater DC Disabilities Film Festival

While the 18 films being screened next week around the region at the third annual ReelAbilities: Greater DC Disabilities Film Festival illuminate the lives, stories and artistry of people with a wide range of disabilities, they are intended not only for a special-needs population, but for the general public, said Jessica Tischler, the festival director. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, the festival aims to build awareness of the diverse disability communities to people throughout the region, noted Tischler, who also directs special-needs programming at the Fairfax-based JCC.

ReelAbilities has become an annual event across the nation since the inaugural festival at the Manhattan JCC in 2007. This year the ReelAbilities films are being screened in 14 cities, and many, thought not all, are sponsored by Jewish organizations ranging from JCCs to Jewish family services organizations.

“We have a strong special needs department here at the JCC of Northern Virginia,” Tischler said, “and an important mission not only for the JCC but also for our department is for us to promote tikkun olam through trying to help out our greater community and bringing awareness and education to the community.”

The festival opens today with Come As You Are, the story of three young men with disabilities who embark on a quest to lose their virginity. They find a Spanish brothel that caters to men with disabilities. Following the 7 p.m. screening at the Spectrum Theatre in Arlington, executive producer Asta Philpot will speak. His real-life experience provides the basis for this film.

The program closes a week later on Feb. 13 with the inspiring documentary Wampler’s Ascent, which features the story of Stephen Wampler, who has cerebral palsy and is determined to climb Yosemite’s formidable El Capitan Mountain. To accomplish this goal, he needs to do 20,000 pull-ups, advancing just 2 to 6 inches at a time – a remarkable endeavor.

While this year none of the films contain specifically Jewish or made-in-Israel content, the stories they tell focus on individuals with disabilities ranging from autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness and more, touch all communities, nationalities and religions. For Tischler, these stories are relevant to the population she serves at the JCCNV and far beyond.

“We service about 300 to 400 individuals across the year,” she noted with programs reaching children and adults “from preschool to 100.”

Aside from afterschool activities, summer camps – including Camp Kadima, a psychologist-run social skills summer camp – and outreach programs, the special-needs department is expanding its reach into the community through a collaboration involving Northern Virginia Community College Annandale campus.

“We received a grant through the Long Term Care Coordinating Council to run a social club for young adults age 19 to 29, similar to the Going Places activities program we run at the JCC throughout the year,” Tischler said. “This one is for individuals who go to the community college and want an outlet to socialize.”

It’s meant to provide young adults with developmental disabilities opportunities to meet and socialize in a friendly and supportive setting.

While the special-needs department at the JCCNV is open to anyone, she said, the majority of her clientele encompasses children and young adults on the high-functioning autism spectrum, along with individuals with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But, she added, “we do service individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and we make accommodations for anybody who wants to come to our programs or any JCC of Northern Virginia event.”

The ReelAbilities Film Festival is one more way the JCCNV can reach out to the community while helping increase the awareness of the general public to a various special-needs populations. Tischler sees that outreach and public advocacy as an integral part of the work she does as director of the special-needs department there.

The films range from the quirky to romantic, the comic to the inspirational. They all feature personal stories of individuals overcoming adversity. And for Tischler, there’s no better way to learn about and learn to appreciate that special population than through a visual and storytelling medium like film.

ReelAbilities: Greater DC Disabilities Film Festival will be screened  Feb. 6-13 at 19 venues around the Beltway and in the District. For a complete schedule of the festival, visit Opening and closing night tickets are $15, all other films are $10 general admission, $7 seniors and students with ID. 

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