Film Festival’s Accessibility Efforts Show Impact Is More Than Just a Number

Discussion after “I Said, NO” screening on Oct. 5, 2023. (Photo from @fullspectrumfeatures)

FSF event cr FSF Facebook

by Joanne Hsu, Grants Programs Manager

Read Time 3 minutes
November 9, 2023

In 2020, Full Spectrum Features (FSF), a Chicago-based nonprofit committed to driving equity in the independent film industry, began focusing its efforts on improving accessibility across Chicagoland’s 80+ film festivals. 

With the help of an $8,250 Illinois Humanities Community Grant awarded in January 2022, FSF began a project entitled Access Reframed | Empowering Action, in partnership with the Reeling Film Festival. Their goal was to create a model for accessibility that could be used not just for a single film festival but also replicated for other film festivals as well as in cultural spaces such as theatres, museums, libraries, multi-use spaces, schools, and community centers.

Over the course of twelve months, and through collaboration with All Senses GoBACKBONES, and LaGrish, FSF provided a series of accessibility workshops, venue audits, one-to-one consulting, and improvement recommendations for services, adaptive equipment, and facility modifications, coupled with opportunities to implement accessibility improvements and make further assessments and changes.

Working with FSF, Reeling 2022: The 40th Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival screened four films that offered many different forms of accessibility. Each event offered open or closed captions and audio descriptions for the film itself, as well as American Sign Language interpretation and live CART transcription for post-screening panels or Q&As. 

All events were accessible for wheelchair users and staffed with an access concierge. The festival also provided large print and braille programs. Efforts were made to reach out to the disability community beforehand with invitations outlining these different types of accessibility.

At each event, a number of people with disabilities attended. However, the staff at Reeling was disappointed with the turnout. The accessibility consultants on FSF’s team reminded staff that the disability community lives in a world that does not consider or include them. 

As with any new initiative, it takes time for an audience for accessible programming to grow.

Empowering Action Poster

“Every organization, when they are providing accessibility, is implicitly working to rebuild trust with the disability community,” 

Cassidy Dimon, Director of Programs, Events, and Accessibility at FSF shared.  The fact that a number of people with disabilities attended the festival was itself an important first step.

Dimon’s comment shows that, for an accessibility initiative like this, turnout is only one measure of success. Additional signs of success included the internal growth and training of staff members in accessible festival programming, the creation of an accessibility model for other film professionals, a better experience for audience members in general, and increased overall visibility.  

Conversations with participants bore this out. During the festival debrief, one Reeling staff member began crying, explaining that the staff member’s Deaf mother had attended the film festival, and this was the first time the two had shared a public film experience where the mother felt included.

For Dimon and FSF, the heartfelt reaction was one sign of encouragement to continue accessibility efforts. 

In addition to redefining success, FSF stressed the importance of collaboration with local disability communities, organizations, and providers; prioritizing inclusion from the earliest days of festival planning; sharing resources and being transparent about processes; and committing to access for the long-term.

“Solidifying…trust requires not just four accessible events across an entire film festival, but an ongoing and consistent commitment to providing high-quality accessibility in order to gain the trust of the community,” Dimon reflected.

Read the full impact report to learn more about the takeaways and the Access Reframed | Empowering Action project.

Do you have a story to share about an Illinois Humanities grant project? 

If so, please email Joanne Hsu at Learn about Illinois Humanities' grant opportunities here.