Floyd Stewart, paralyzed in mid-life by a car accident, uses assistive technologies to run Middle Tennessee's Center for Independent Living. Blind physicist Dr. Kent Cullers taught computers to do what his ears can do, and now leads the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. Susanna Sweeney-Martini is completing her college education in Seattle with the aid of a power wheelchair and voice-input software.
These are a few of the people whose stories are at the center of Freedom Machines, a new documentary having its broadcast premiere Tuesday, Sept. 14 at 10 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS' acclaimed non-fiction series P.O.V. This poignant and thought-provoking film tells the stories of people typically labeled (and dismissed) as "disabled", whose determination and access to inventive new technologies are transforming their lives and their communities.
Jamie Stobie and Janet Cole's Freedom Machines is part of the 17th season of PBS's acclaimed P.O.V. series. P.O.V. continues on Tuesdays, 10 p.m., through Sept. 28 on PBS. A winter special completes the 2004 season. American television's longest-running independent documentary series, P.O.V. is public television's premier showcase for point-of-view, non-fiction films.
Freedom Machines is not a profile of "unusual" people who have "overcome their disabilities" or succeeded "despite" their physical conditions. Rather, in showing what is possible, the film asks viewers to question accepted ideas of what "disability" means. And access to assistive technologies is properly set in the context of civil rights and public policy rather than limited to the realm of charity or good will.
Freedom Machines replaces romantic notions of gallant individual struggles with the reality of society's attitudes and choices about assistive technologies. Who has access and who doesn't? What decisions do we make about the design of our buildings, streets, transportation, and media? Who bears the costs and who benefits? Do we see assistive technologies as burdensome disability devices, or, as inventor Dean Kamen says, "enabling devices?" And if they are enabling devices, what do they enable us - all of us - to do?
Freedom Machines shows what is now possible and what will soon be possible. But, as the film demonstrates, the existence of the technology is not enough to ensure its use. Liberating new technologies remain out of reach for many of America's 54 million disabled people. As Jackie Brand, founder of the Alliance for Technology Access and mother of one of the women profiled in Freedom Machines summarizes, "It's a terribly frustrating thing to look at something that you know would change your life so enormously and be so powerful for you, and to know it's not to be had because you don't have the resources and the society has not decided that it's important enough for you to have."
The lives of the people we meet in Freedom Machines underscore the fact that the promises of 1990's landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandated equal access to education, employment, and other essential activities and services for the country's largest minority group, remain largely unfulfilled. The benefits of new technology, new laws, and new design concepts are being held hostage to lack of funding, information, and political will.
As a result, society as a whole misses the chance to maximize human potential and productivity. As evidence, Freedom Machines explores the concept of "universal design" (UD), which employs technology and architecture to make environments adaptable to the particular needs and abilities of a wide range of individuals. In doing so, UD is breaking down social distinctions between "abled" and "disabled." For example, the simple curb cut, once controversial, today facilitates the movements of mothers with baby carriages, delivery people with carts, even skateboarders, along with people who use wheelchairs.
Narrated by actor Peter Dinklage, star of the acclaimed film The Station Agent, Freedom Machines is a timely and dramatic look at technology's new "enabling" wonders, and at the contradictions in social policy and attitudes that prevent their full employment by all those who need or can benefit from them. Freedom Machines dares to envision a genuinely inclusive community, a community that benefits from each of its unique members contributing at their full capacity.
About The Filmmakers:
Jamie Stobien Producer/Director
Jamie Stobie's career spans a quarter century, 12 films and several film series for PBS. Her credits include Cadillac Desert, Jon Else's acclaimed series about water and the west based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book; Life Beyond Earth, the PBS special on astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial life with author Tim Ferris, the WGBH series Evolution, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos.
Janet Cole Executive Producer
Janet Cole's recent credits, Promises, Paragraph 175, Heart of the Sea and Regret to Inform garnered her Oscar and Emmy nominations, two Emmy awards and a Peabody Award. All had primetime broadcasts and extensive outreach programs. Cole has specialized in the strategic distribution of social-issue films for over 20 years and has been a consultant for PBS, CPB, the MacArthur Foundation, the Sundance Institute, and many filmmakers.
Producer/ Director: Jamie Stobie
Executive Producer: Janet Cole
Editor: Ken Schneider
Co-Producer: Sharon Wood
Senior Associate Producer: Betsy Bayha
Director of Photography: Robert Elfstrom
Project Director: Richard Cox
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Freedom Machines was produced in association with the Independent Television Service.
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Famous People with Disabilities - Well known people with disabilities and conditions who contributed to society.