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concordia 16/04/2018 - 09:42AM

CP Concordia Screens a Triumphant Landmark of Disability Activism

The room was packed on March 26th at Cinema Politica Concordia’s venue, as audience members gathered for the Montreal premiere of DEFIANT LIVES, an internationally acclaimed documentary on the “rise and triumph of the disability rights movement”.

The fierce and exhilarating film was followed by a discussion with Montreal activist Laurence Parent and director Sarah Barton, mediated by activist and musician Gift Tshuma. The discussion focused on the importance of fighting for disability rights through individual complaints to institutions, as well as organized collective action on the outside. The activists equally mentioned the crucial roles of people with disabilities who occupy positions of power within legal and political systems to advocate for concrete legislative change. Audience members poignantly brought to light and discussed the specific challenges faced by members of the Deaf community as well as by individuals with invisible disabilities.

With DEFIANT LIVES, audience members were taken on an international journey through decades of disability activism. Director Sarah Barton poignantly weaves together more than 600 pieces of archival footage as well as interviews with over 30 leading disability activists from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The documentary does not shy away from the brutal truth, and opens with often violent images of institutions where people with disabilities were routinely imprisoned and suffered confinement and abuse. From these difficult beginnings emerges a triumphant will to fight against these oppressive practices, and the activists recounting their stories speak with an incredible resilience and courage which will inspire many to follow in their path.

Indeed, the archival material and interviews in DEFIANT LIVES deliver a timely and unique story which had never been told before in film. Barton uncovers an often silenced history, and reinserts it into official narratives. The documentary retraces the struggles of disability activists from early protests against dehumanizing and paternalistic charity campaigns in Australia, to the creation of the Disabled Students Program at Berkeley University by Ed Roberts in the 1970s. Some of the poignant and inspiring archival material includes footage of the curb actions and civil rights demonstrations during the 1980s to demand more accessible city streets and public transportation. The triumphant and tireless drive for legislation is perhaps most memorably embodied in the 504 Sit-in, a disability rights protest in 1977 which included an occupation of US federal buildings by activists to push for long-delayed legislation.

DEFIANT LIVES is a powerful challenge to social stigmatization and problematic media representations of disability. It vibrantly stresses the revolutionary potential of the social model, which focuses on society as the problem rather than impairment or condition, and shows how it has empowered people with disabilities all over the world to fight for independence and self-determination. However, positive representation on screen goes hand in hand with direct action, and audiences were urged by the activists and filmmaker during the post-screening discussion to support struggles for the rights of people with disabilities here in Canada and Montreal, where a lot of work remains to be done, and history continues to be written by disability activists every day.


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