By Daniel J. Vance MS, LPC, NCC

It blossomed from one city in 2007 to fourteen cities in 2013. More will come. The ReelAbilities Film Festival is the world's largest event promoting awareness and appreciation of juried international films that share the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with disabilities.

“The festival happens annually and has anywhere from ten to twenty films,” said 38-year-old Christa Zielke, ReelAbilities Film Festival national field director.

The festival began in New York City, and Cincinnati, the second city to have the festival, now hosts the organization's operational headquarters. Zielke said separate organizations in each of the fourteen cities screen and choose winning films for their own markets. Sometimes, film producers and stars take part in special events. The list of cities involved includes Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Columbus, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh.

Zielke said, “There were some big-name actors in one of the (2013) films, 'Cinemability', which is a documentary on portrayals and representation of people with disabilities in media.” Some of those actors include Jane Seymour, Jamie Foxx, Ben Affleck, Geena Davis, Beau Bridges, Geri Jewell, Robert David Hall, Gary Sinise, and Marlee Matlin.

The 2013 New York festival also included the documentary “AKA Doc Pomus”, which featured one of America's greatest songwriters. Pomus was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. His songs have been performed by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Brian Wilson, The Band, B.B. King, and others. Pomus had polio as a child, and used crutches and a wheelchair later for mobility.

Zielke said the word “disability” can take in a wide range of experience and vary in definition from person to person. For example, Zielke herself has narcolepsy, which some people wouldn't call a disability. Yet the National Institutes of Health describes it as “a chronic brain disorder that involves poor control of sleep-wake cycles.” Its symptoms can include a vivid dream-like state or hallucinations, total paralysis immediately prior to or after sleep, a sudden loss of voluntary muscle tone, and daytime sleep attacks lasting up to several minutes.

Then there are people who don't self-identify as having a disability and yet certainly meet every legal definition. For instance, a friend Zielke races bikes with is a one-arm amputee. When asked about being involved in the Cincinnati film festival, her friend said he didn't believe he had a disability.

To learn more, see reelabilities.org.

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