Conductor James DePreist and “My Country” ADA documentary

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I run into people who say something is accessible to people with disabilities when it so very much isn’t. For instance, a building might have ten stairs to the front door and no elevator, but it’s called accessible. (You know, just have some folks carry disabled people in who can’t walk the stairs. Never mind there’s no dignity or agency in that.) I think often they don’t know what access is. They most certainly don’t know about the huge range of disability experiences that are possible and how those intersect with other identities and experiences. Because accessibility is so much more than ramps in place of stairs.

The other thing I hear is, “Well, you have the ADA. Just make a complaint and get someone to be more accessible.” Oh, sigh. If only. But hardly. The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t work that way. There’s no complaint department. There’s no incentive to fix things. There’s loopholes people use to avoid fixing problems. Buildings and websites are still being built, and New York subway stations renovated, without including any accessibility features at all. Yes, even though it’s the law. (There’s collection of different laws that govern employment, buildings, websites, movies, airplanes, schools, etc. But most people call all of it the ADA.)

The other thing that I hear, see, and experience, is that the disability rights movement is still primarily led by white people. It’s long past time that needs to change.

In 1997, PBS aired a documentary called “My Country.” Here’s the description from the ADA.gov website: “symphony conductor James DePreist, who contracted polio as a young man, profiles three people with disabilities whose lives have been shaped by the struggle for equal rights. Mr. DePreist is the nephew of African American contralto Marian Anderson, who in 1939 was prevented from singing at Constitution Hall. He draws parallels between racial barriers and the barriers faced by people with disabilities.” Maestro DePreist doesn’t just draw the parallels; he has lived them. And he knows that inaccessibility isn’t caused by stairs or other physical barriers but by the attitudes that allow and perpetuate these obstacles. Just like being African-American isn’t a problem; it’s racist attitudes and institutions that have created massive inequality.
Ms. Anderson was the first Black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. James DePreist was a very rare bird indeed, as a Black man conducting orchestras, directing music, writing poetry, and working and winning awards across the globe, including the Oregon Symphony located in my town, Portland, OR. In 1988, he was hired by the New York Philharmonic to lead a performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with the Boys Choir of Harlem and the Modern Jazz Quartet. He did it because he was already in town doing another series of concerts. But he said, “I do not believe in engaging black artists and doing black music in black areas, because I feel that it is misleading, the worst kind of tokenism, especially if it’s the only time you see black artists or hear works by black composers.” While tokenizing based on race and ethnicity is very different from tokenism based on disability, they are both very real and very harmful.

If you haven’t already clicked the link to the ADA.gov website to find the “My Country” documentary, please click it now. Here it is again: www.ada.gov/mycountryvideo/hi_speed_qt/mycountrydslgallery.htm .

The film is broken into short segments so you can watch at your convenience. And when I say watch it, I mean really, really watch it. Because you can choose to watch each segment in a variety of ways: video and audio only, video with Captions and audio, video and audio with Audio Description, or video and audio with Audio Description and Captions.

This page requires Quicktime media player to watch the videos. If you prefer RealPlayer, there’s a link at the bottom of the page where you can download that player.

“My Country” is a fantastic documentary. Because it’s made so accessible, it’s also a fair documentary. They may be talking about civil rights, but I hear the language of social justice throughout. I simply can’t recommend this film enough.

Please share the link with people who do and do not use access features for films. It’s important to get the film itself out, but also to show more and more people that access is a normal, natural thing to add to media. No, it’s not too hard, too annoying, or too expensive. It’s access. Without access, we don’t have people at the table together working toward equity. Equity is explored over and over in this film, from the inclusion of people who aren’t white, to the use of “not-disabled” in place of the term “able-bodied.”

Did I mention what a great film this is? Please watch a piece or all of it and enjoy the access features whether you need to use them for access or not. They are cool.