by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
There will always be those who yearn for a simpler time, a time before the world was consumed by the internet and ever-advancing technologies. For the 54 million people living with disabilities in the United States, assistive technology can transform their lives, making it possible to fully participate in the able-bodied world – if they are able to afford it. The documentary Freedom Machines profiles people living with physical disabilities and the miraculous technologies that hold the key to their futures. The film, by Jamie Stobie and Janet Cole, will be broadcast on PBS September 9th as part of the Point of View series.
Her mother, Sue Sweeney, is a special-education teacher who has tirelessly advocated on her daughter’s behalf. During high school, Sweeney fought with the school because they refused to provide Sweeney-Martini with a laptop to complete her assignments; she believes that the school didn’t want to spend money on the disabled when that money could be spent on the able-bodied. When the school wouldn’t give her daughter the technology she needed, Sweeney mortgaged her house to raise the money.Freedom Machines reveals that economics often determines the fate of the disabled: according to the World Institute on Disability, approximately forty percent of disabled working-age Americans live in poverty. An equally depressing statistic from the Alliance for Technology Access states that less than 25 percent of people with disabilities are using assistive technologies. This is understandable when you learn that a completely motorized wheelchair can cost over $20,000.
The younger people profiled in the film all have parents as caregivers and advocates, but what happens if you don’t have that support system?
Floyd Stewart was severely injured in a car accident in his mid-30s and became a quadriplegic. He spent five and half years in a nursing home before making the decision to live independently; after earning a college degree, he started working for the Middle Tennessee's Center for Independent Living with the use of assistive technology. For the last 16 years, he has worked with adults who are living in nursing homes after becoming physically disabled. But helping his peers gain independence is an uphill challenge: “The system isn’t working because the laws are not backed up with the funding to make independence a reality for individuals with disabilities.”The stigma that the physically disabled cannot be contributing members of society is still prevalent, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Bonita Dearmond was born blind during a time when the visually-impaired either lived in institutions or worked menial jobs. The volunteer radio host left a school for the blind in favor of a public high school because, “I wanted more than working at a concession stand.” In addition to reading Braille, she uses scanning software that translates text to audio so she can read everything from books to her mail. Despite holding a Bachelors of Science in Special Education, Dearmond has had difficulty finding a well-paying job and must rely on Social Security Disability to live.
The film does have many depressing anecdotes that capture the heart-breaking experiences of the disabled, but Freedom Machines is actually a very hopeful film about the technologies that exist and are continuing to be developed. For some, like high school student LaToya Nesmith, a special computer keyboard with extra large keys helps her overcome her poor dexterity so she can attend a mainstream public school. For others, new wheelchairs that climb stairs can change their lives. iBOT wheelchair inventor Dean Kamen considers these technologies, "enabling devices" that move people forward.For 56 minutes, Freedom Machines documents the lives of the physically disabled without ever building to a dramatic climax. Though not a great cinematic achievement, the film is perfect for public television – it is an informative look at underrepresented and marginalized members of our society. Still, the filmmakers never bore; they profile a wide range of people with varying circumstances. Actor Peter Dinklage, who starred in the film The Station Agent, narrates the documentary. He was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, which has not deterred him from becoming a well-respected actor.
What is so interesting about the technologies explored in the documentary is that they are aimed at helping people with disabilities function with the world as it exists – not creating an alternate society where technology further isolates people. A life spent at home on the internet can be portrayed as a detached existence, but for many of the people profiled in Freedom Machines the internet is their link to their home-bound peers and the outside world. Saying that everyone has dreams and ambitions may be a bit clichéd, but that does not make it any less true, especially for those who are constrained by their physical limitations.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San Francisco, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.