A Voice through Film

The banner for the Free Our People Film Contest
The banner for the Free Our People Film Contest, Center for Disability Rights

Housing is a human right. No person should have to live without adequate shelter that meets their needs. It’s no secret, however, that proper housing is not afforded to many people in the United States. For people with disabilities, the relationship with housing is much more complicated, as it is often wrapped up with care as well. Housing for people with disabilities often has to come with some sort of care to make sure they can make it through their day in a healthy manner.

There are three main models of this care and living situation crossover: independent/community living, assisted living, and nursing homes. Independent living, as the name implies, is when someone is able to live on their own. They may still require a home health aide to help them with day-to-day tasks, but they have a certain amount of independence in where they live. It is often called community living because of its emphasis on being based in a community, not a facility. Community living is important because people living in facilities often feel isolated and removed from society. Conversely, not having people with disabilities in a community means their existence and perspectives are forgotten or othered. Assisted living is similar to community living in that there are varying levels of care available for people. The primary difference, however, is that assisted living takes place in a facility. People in assisted living facilities often don’t need around-the-clock care and can do most daily tasks on their own. Lastly, nursing homes are facility-based care for people who cannot go about the majority of their day on their own or need advanced care. This is not to say that people in nursing homes are unable to participate in independent or community living. It is entirely possible for people typically slated as nursing home patients to live happy and healthy lives with community living. These people just require more advanced care, such as that which is provided by advanced home health aides.

So, why aren’t more people with disabilities in community living environments? One is the literal lack of physically accessible housing. Most houses are not designed with people with disabilities in mind, especially affordable housing. Another is something the Center for Disability Rights (CDRNYS) calls “The Institutional Bias.” Although there are multiple forms of institutional bias against disabled people (the lack of accessible Section 8 housing being one, the inability to get married without losing benefits being another), CDRNYS focuses on the problem of community living versus institutional living; more specifically, the problem that “any state that receives federal dollars for Medicaid, must provide nursing home services, but community based services are optional.”[1] With few resources going toward community living, nursing homes become the only places where people with disabilities can get adequate care. Effectively, people with disabilities are institutionalized in the twenty-first century.

In protest against “the Institutional Bias,” CDRNYS started the Free Our People Film Contest. Running since 2017, the contest encourages submissions from people that showcase their interpretations of, or experiences with, the “Institutional Bias.” Contestants present stories from all over the country, making it clear that this is not just an issue in New York, where CDRNYS is based, but affecting people with disabilities everywhere in the United States.

The contest has a strict set of guidelines in order for a film to be eligible. For the 2019 contest, movies were required to prominently feature drinking straws and stars (the former probably stemming from the straw banning craze of 2018, which is widely considered to be ableist). The films can be of almost any genre and filmmakers have 42 days from announcement to submission to create their works of art. Perhaps most important, however, are the guidelines for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the film-making process. In order to prevent people from making movies without the inclusion of people with disabilities, either the writer, director, editor, or cinematographer must be a person with disabilities. Additionally, all characters with disabilities, including animated ones, must be played by actual people with disabilities or the films face disqualification.

Short films are an excellent vehicle for activism. With each film between seven and eleven minutes long, the movies get right to the point of the matter and are accessible to people who may not have the time or energy to watch something longer. Additionally, movies can be captioned for people who are d/Deaf and hard of hearing and people who are blind or have low-vision. CDRNYS is doing important and difficult work for people with disabilities and things like the Free Our People Film Festival help bring us one step closer to a more equitable, community-centric, world.


[1] “Free Our People Film Contest,” Center for Disability Rights, accessed February 16th, 2020. http://cdrnys.org/free-our-people-film-contest/

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