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Spotlight on Reel Abilities Film Festival Toronto

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In this section, we will learn about The ReelAbilities Film Festival (RAFF), dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with disabilities by presenting award winning films by and about people with disabilities. RAFF was founded in New York City in 2007 and in 2016, the festival crossed the border and launched in Toronto, Ontario, making this the first official international chapter of RAFF. The fully accessible festival also hosts post-screening discussions and programs that engage the greater community in promoting inclusion and celebrating diversity.

Developing an Understanding

Often films on the subject of disability carry an underlying message that disabilities prevent a person from living a full life. Toronto film critic Angelo Muredda believes that “disabled people are used to seeing these sort of able-bodied, disabled narratives about disability as this kind of tragic condition that keeps you from living a real life, that you have to get past" (vanKampen, 2017).

This is a misrepresentation of how people with disabilities live their lives. The answer, Muredda says, lies in allowing people with disabilities to tell their own stories. "We want to see ourselves represented the way that we are... And actually see our lived experiences in books and on screen" (vanKampen, 2017).

The ReelAbilities Film Festival Toronto (RAFFTO) showcases Canadian and International shorts, features, and documentaries about Deaf and disability cultures and by filmmakers and actors with disabilities and/or who are Deaf.

ReelAbilities artistic director Liviya Mendelsohn says, "It's really important that filmmakers with disabilities are telling their own stories and finding platforms to share their own experiences" (vanKampen, 2017).

At the 2018 festival, 30 films were screened across five fully accessible venues in Toronto. All films were captioned and all panels, Question and Answer and events had ASL interpretation. Live captioning was available on Opening Night and always upon request.

Since 2016, RAFFTO has launched programs alongside producing the festival in the spring of each year. Programs such as the ReelAccess/CinemAccessible Guide and the CBC-ReelAbilities Breaking Barriers Film Fund have helped make RAFFTO a major Toronto film festival. In 2017, RAFFTO added workshops to teach filmmakers how to make their films more accessible for audiences who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

The ReelEducation program provides free resources for educators and administrators to teach students from senior kindergarten to Grade 12 about inclusion, empathy, universal design, mental health and stereotypes, as well as attitudinal and employment barriers. There are 10 films and lesson plans and each ReelEducation kit comes in an accessibly formatted lesson plan, that has been designed to align with the Ontario curriculum, and grants access to ReelAbilities films that demonstrate the core values of the lessons. In 2018, 119 schools and 28 schoolboards across Ontario used the ReelEducation kits, impacting 5,200 students. After the program, 100% of the teachers surveyed felt more knowledgeable about accessibility, expressed a commitment to creative inclusive learning environments as well as a commitment to teaching their students about accessibility and disability.

Here are statistics from the 2018 ReelAbilities Toronto Film Festival:

  • 30 screenings

  • 100% of films captioned

  • 5 accessible venues

  • 17 ASL interpreted events

  • 15 million reached through media coverage

  • 25 actors and directors from RAFF films in attendance

  • 1 relaxed dance performance

  • 1 all day free screenings at City Hall for Doors open

  • 5 comedians with disabilities for "What's So Funny About Disability" comedy night

  • 48 community partners and sponsors

  • 14 000 in attendance, including our Doors Open screenings
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