The short documentary we called The Extraordinary Lives of Stephanie and Joe came about by chance. At the end of 2018, a friend asked me to forward the link to the Oska Bright Film Festival to my son, Oscar, who has NVLD (Non-Verbal Learning Disability) and is a film-maker in his final year at college. The festival, produced by Carousel, a Brighton-based arts charity, challenges and supports the film industry to change, and to be more inclusive and representative of the society it serves. There are 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK and we see a variety of people every day in the real world, so why isn’t that reflected on screen?
The Oska Bright Film Festival is a disabled-led event that puts people with learning disabilities at the heart of the work. The intention was that Norwood would enter this short film in the festival and I was clear that I wanted the film to provide a glimpse into the lives of the sort of people that Norwood supports. This was not a promotional film for Norwood, but rather an opportunity to tell the stories of individuals connected to the charity and so indirectly highlight the ethos and care for everyone who comes into contact with Norwood.
This film and Norwood’s involvement in the Oska Bright Film Festival offered a powerful opportunity to communicate the work that Norwood does. The overall message was that Norwood is a 21st century organisation and part of the disability-led narrative. People underestimate those with learning disabilities and Norwood wants to enable people to attain their full potential. This film is part of that public attempt to reach out and engage directly with the learning disabled world in a totally different way; one that embraces creativity and imagination while celebrating the individual.
I knew that I had my film-maker and editor in Oscar. The film would be fun, uplifting and show how Stephanie and Joe, two young adults, live their lives to the full with the help of Assistive Technology. By the end of the film audiences would see the individuals and not the wheelchairs. Dr Beverley Jacobson, the CEO of Norwood, gave the go-ahead and the planning began.
Oscar and I visited Stephanie and Joe many times, spending time with them and asking them to help us understand how they use AT. They demonstrated opening and closing doors, using Eye Gaze, playing Xbox , playing games and so much more. We met with and spoke to parents and support staff and by the end of the filming period – which took place over February and March – we knew that we had something very special. The film was shot on a hand-held camera, documentary style, and Oscar filmed and edited the footage to 14:33 minutes. We had our film!
The next step was to plan a celebratory premiere with a screening in a Central London cinema, with full-size posters plastered all round and goodie bags for everyone. We achieved all of that and more, as you can see from the picture of Stephanie and Joe in front of the poster.
The panellists were an inspiring collection of individuals selected to fit in with and facilitate the conversations the film prompted. David Banes runs Access.org, which includes all aspects of access and inclusion through disability. Ross Atkin is a designer and engineer and is particularly interested in older and disabled people, digital technology and public spaces and works on a variety of projects that combine at least two of these areas. Jessi Parrott is a writer, performer and PhD student who has cerebral palsy and campaigns for equality and inclusion for disabled people. Jenny Sealey is CEO of Graeae Theatre Company, an integrated dis/abled theatre company, who told the audience: “What Graeae does is make theatre that matters and challenges audiences perceptions: they ‘fall into’ the play so they stop judging. It stops being about disability, and becomes about talent.” Cassie Gurling is Musical Inclusion Practitioner & Manager for Drake Music, which believes that everyone has the right to express themselves creatively through music and uses new technologies and ideas to open up access to music for all. Their vision is a world where disabled and non-disabled musicians work together as equals.
The screening took place on 13 June 2019 at the Curzon Cinema, Mayfair and, thanks to the generosity of supporters and sponsors, we all had a truly extraordinary night at the cinema with Stephanie and Joe.
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