Making the Documentary: Disability in the Americas

In February, 2007, and in response to the intransigence of the Bush Administration and state and local governments regarding enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the American Disability Association decided to conduct a survey of disability and quality of life of people with disabilities from Uruguay to Alaska, in short, across the Americas. It was our intention to film much of what we saw, and present the mini-series for airing on television both in the Americas and abroad. We would use a cafe' approach to bring ideas back to the states and we would share disability policy with other nations. This approach would serve all nations by establishing benchmarks of accessibility for all the American nations. We never intended our survey to become a humanitarian mission, but it has and we believe it was meant to be.

Early in the process of conducting this survey, our organization relied upon the talents of Patricio Burbano, an Ecuadorian filmmaker who was then living in Buenos Aires. Having a local filmmaker with a disability who was good to help us in both English and Spanish was invaluable.

As we had expected, bright line issues affecting disability were clear across South America. In Uruguay, cities like Montevideo are generally accessible while towns in the countryside are not. We found the same to be true for Argentina, where Buenos Aires is very accessible and cities like Tucum'an are not, and communities like Amaicha del Valle, while one of the most beautiful places on the planet, were reminiscent of Alabama in the 1930's, with dirt roads and no provision for wheelchair access at all.

In Ecuador we found that its main city, Quito, was not generally accessible but offered areas that were generally accessible, as was also the case of its port and and largest city, Guayaquil. In Ecuador we first penetrated the poverty of disability and began discussions both with our disabled constituents as well as the University San Francisco de Quito, where it appeared we would directly support the development of disability studies and through an intelligent and thoughtful approach, bring a heightened level of access to people with disabilities in Ecuador. We have the support of the University in our work, but as the price of oil was falling, and the economy of Ecuador tightening during the Global Economic Crisis, these strictures proved fatal to our plan at that moment. Lenin Moreno, the Vice-president of Ecuador, is a person with a disability committed to reforms such as disability studies in Ecuador.

On returning to the United States, we began work to secure funding to return to Ecuador and further pursue disability studies. We thought that since our offices were located in the United States, we would have the fewest problems integrating our organizations plan across the Americas. This simple assumption, that the United States and its citizens were free to study disability in the Americas, proved fatal to our second attempt when we tried, unsuccessfully, to bring our filmmaker to Alabama to work with us here. We followed the advice of counsel at the U.S. Department of State regarding our filmmaker to no avail.

When our president, Dr. William J. Freeman, flew to Quito to try to assist our filmmaker in entering the states, our president was tortured by U.S. Embassy staff, who denied him access to the handicap parking at the U.S. Embassy at Quito, presumably because he had complained that the public access regarding the Embassy was not adequate and seemed designed to create a barrier to access. Our president, William Freeman, who has cerebral palsy, was forced to walk up a hill to a public sidewalk and wait on transportation to be brought around, presumably because he sought accommodation for our disabled filmmaker.

Realizing that our work in Ecuador had given rise to a responsibility to disabled people in that country in particular, because of the extreme poverty and inaccessible nature of some of the most beautiful places on the planet, like B'anos, Riobamba, T'ena and Otavalo, we feel a responsibility to continue our work and struggle to tell our story. We were amazed that in the tiny town of Libert'ad that the Shopping Mall was highly accessible. We were not able to assess the Galapagos Islands during our initial evaluation of Ecuador, but because it remains a tourist destination of the small country, we think the island is more accessible than most parts of the nation.

We have returned to the states to seek funding for humanitarian work in Ecuador, which we originally did not intend but which we cannot ignore.

The story of our struggles over the past two and a half years across South America will be told here, certainly. But our struggle in the United States, where our organization has helped the United States since 1999 as a U.S. Census Partner, is just now beginning. We would encourage people with disabilities to contact their local, state and national leaders about our problems, and the lack of freedom our organization is facing in telling the story of disability here in the states. While we do not believe our government has a policy to black-out our disability in the Americas project, the United States must have more accessible modes of immigration for people with disabilities and this issue is not one that should even need discussion. But we are not presently allowed to bring our filmmaker to the United States.

Finally, we need the support of people across the Americas in pursuing this work. We have had several occasions to require additional legal support in our mission, and generally our legal staff requires financial support. Please take our appeal to your churches and civic organizations. No one else is doing the sort of continent-wide oversight that our agency does. Because of our work in South America we were able to identify a demographic which needs assistance here in the United States and may be 'off the grid' as to traditional safety net protections during the Global Economic Crisis.

By helping others we have found problems here in the United States that are not adequately being addressed and we want to raise our voice wherever we find inequality. We also need your help.

We welcome the involvement of other media in telling our story. We welcome your donations, through the link below, in support of our work.

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We must not allow anybody to make us feel that we are born to live in poverty and deprivation, we must make it clear: we are going to live in dignity and honor.
-- Martin Luther King
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