Ready, Willing and Disabled


The second annual ReelAbilities Philadelphia Disabilities Film Festival is the only film festival in the region dedicated to showcasing films with a focus on disabilities.

A man who performs 20,000 pull-ups to scale a mountain, inches at a time. A graffiti artist afflicted with ALS learns how to create art again using just his eyes and a computer program that helps him “draw” on walls. Jet Li in a movie — with absolutely no martial arts whatsoever.

These amazing stories — Wampler’s Ascent, Getting Up and Ocean Heaven, respectively — are part of the lineup for the second annual ReelAbilities Philadelphia Disabilities Film Festival, the only film festival in the region dedicated to showcasing films with a focus on disabilities. The weeklong event, which begins April 21 and is presented by Jewish Family and Children’s Service, originated in New York in 2007 as a way to promote awareness of — and appreciation for — the richly varied lives of differently abled people. It has proven so popular that it has spawned offshoots in 11 other cities besides New York and Phila­delphia.

According to Holli Elgart, marketing and public relations director for JFCS, that is what drew the organization to hold the first festival in Philadelphia last year. “It’s a great opportunity to increase awareness of special needs across the area and to increase fundraising for JFCS” — specifically, for the organization’s Center for Special Needs and its website,

The overwhelming response from the disabled community and from the community at large led to this year’s expanded slate of programming, says Sherrie Eisman, Elgart’s partner in running the festival and the JFCS director of collaboration and partnership for special needs.

Eisman’s top priority for this year’s festival was to expand its reach to include working with schools. “In order to advocate for people with disabilities and to make the festival educational, we need to talk with kids about what it’s like to live with a disability, to go to school with kids who have disabilities, and more,” she explains.

By reaching out to education professionals and involving them with the festival committee, she says, ReelAbilities was able to arrange to show films and engage in post-viewing discussions with five schools in the Delaware Valley, including Friends Select in Center City, Abington Friends and John Hancock Demonstration School in the Northeast.

In addition to the films and discussions, there will be dancing — wheelchair dancing. As part of the schools initiative, Ray Leight, a wheelchair ballroom dancer who is the subject of Lower Merion native David Block’s documentary, Dancing Outside the Box, will show students how to cut a rug on wheels.

The other lesson learned from last year’s events, Eisman says, is that “the best-attended programs are the ones with built-in audiences, like at Inglis House and SPIN.” She is referring to the disabled living complex on Belmont Avenue and the Drummond Road facility that houses Special People in the Northeast, which works with adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. To that end, more showings are scheduled at these locations, which draw not only from residents and staff, but from their families, the active adults who use SPIN’s fitness center and the general public as well.

The festival has also increased its commitment to showcasing more creative efforts of disabled people. To that end, they are bringing Oasis Art Center, which works with physically and mentally disabled artists, to The Painted Bride Arts Center on the festival’s opening night, April 21. There, program participants will display their artworks and tell the stories behind the pieces.


ReelAbilities Philly Disabilities Film Festival
April 21-28
Various locales