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Freedom Machines on PBS

High school student Latoya Nesmith of Albany, N.Y. dreams of becoming a translator at the United Nations as she completes her classroom assignments using a keyboard that mitigates her limited dexterity.

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


ITVS funds and presents award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web and the PBS series Independent Lens. ITVS was established by an historic mandate of Congress to champion independently produced programs that take creative risks, spark public dialogue and serve underserved audiences. Since its inception in 1991, ITVS programs have helped to revitalize the relationship between the public and public television. ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American puppets. Contact

Freedom Machines was produced in association with the Independent Television Service.

P.O.V. Now in its 17th season on PBS, P.O.V. is the first and longest-running series on television to feature the work of America's most innovative documentary storytellers. Bringing over 200 award-winning films to millions nationwide, and now a new Web-only series, P.O.V.'s Borders, P.O.V. has pioneered the art of presentation and outreach using independent non-fiction media to build new communities in conversation about today's most pressing social issues.

P.O.V. Interactive (
P.O.V.'s award-winning Web department produces our Web-only showcase for interactive storytelling, P.O.V.'s Borders. It also produces a Web site for every P.O.V. presentation, extending the life of P.O.V. films through community-based and educational applications, focusing on involving viewers in activities, information and feedback on the issues. In addition houses our unique Talking Back feature, filmmaker interviews and viewer resources, and information on the P.O.V. archives as well as myriad special sites for previous P.O.V. broadcasts.

Major funding for P.O.V. is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Educational Foundation of America, PBS and public television viewers. Funding for P.O.V.'s Borders provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Support for P.O.V. is provided by Starbucks Coffee Company. P.O.V. is presented by a consortium of public television stations including KCET/Los Angeles, WGBH/Boston, and WNET/New York. Cara Mertes is executive director of P.O.V., which is a division of American Documentary, Inc.

Support for P.O.V. is provided by Starbucks Coffee Company. Starbucks has a rich tradition of supporting the arts and independent film and celebrates the fact that numerous points of view can be discussed over a good cup of coffee. Starbucks is committed to offering the highest quality coffee in grocery stores nationwide.

American Documentary, Inc. (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. Through two divisions, P.O.V. and Active Voice, AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, on-line and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.

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