Sundance 2021 Knows Accessibility Is a Problem and Set Out to Change It

If you’re a person with a disability looking to attend a film festival, you’ve probably run into the question of which events are suited to you. As a film critic, festivals are par for the course and I’ve been routinely told one thing: Don’t go to Sundance.

The long-running festival held in Park City, Utah, is often looked at as one of the more inaccessible festivals for the disabled, and it’s understandable. “The festival happens to be in the mountains which leads to inherent issues with accessibility,” actor and Easterseals’ Disability Film Challenge creator Nic Novicki told IndieWire. “It is literally 90-degree slopes up and down the hill…and as a little person myself, 3’10” trying to get over a four-foot snowbank is a challenge.”

Add to that a bevy of historic buildings and expense to attend and the challenge is there to exclude a lot of people with disabilities. This year, Easterseals and Sundance partnered up to promote inclusion and accessibility, especially to disabled patrons.

For Karim Ahmad, director of Outreach and Inclusion for the Sundance Lab, the decision to go virtual for 2021 allowed him to find a silver lining or “the light of corona,” as a friend of his said. “This pandemic has shed a light on a variety of different structural inequities and opportunities to shift paradigms and say the old models are dead,” he said. This year, Sundance is rewriting their rule book, mainly inspired by the pandemic, in a way that prioritizes and equalizes the festival experience for those with disabilities.

The biggest element this year, outside of everyone enjoying the festival virtually, is the inclusion of closed-captioning on every film, and ASL interpreters during events and panels. It’s something that Ahmad admits probably shouldn’t have taken so long. “I totally understand where that’s coming from,” he said. “We, like so many in this industry, are on a journey and we strive to improve every year.”

Nancy Weintraub, chief development officer for Easterseals, said this is a continued commitment from Sundance, which she feels regularly puts their money where their mouth is. She explains that, prior to the pandemic, Sundance was one of the few festivals to create an app clearly stating where disabled entrances were; they created a fleet of shuttle buses with trained drivers to help with wheelchairs; and they’ve hired a disability coordinator (prior to COVID) that would be on the ground to specifically help people with disabilities navigate the overwhelming world of the Sundance experience.

Outside of the festival experience there’s also the nature of content, and in the case of this year’s Sundance, the festival is making sure disability is represented: with a screening of Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal,” as well as presenting the premieres of Sian Heder’s “Coda” and the Argentinean episodic series “4 Feet High.” “We actually asked Sundance earlier if they felt this year was one of the more diverse, in relation to disability inclusion, and they said yes,” Weintraub said. “From a content perspective we have more work to do.”

Weintraub said, what’s most important about enjoying Sundance this year, from the standpoint of accessibility, is how it shows the ease with which disabled people can be included. “What the pandemic has done is shine a light on the fact that technology is a very easy tool for accessibility,” she said. “The lesson that we’re all learning is that even when we go back in person, this idea of having live access…really is an opportunity to engage more people.”

That’s where the disabled community comes in specifically because, as Novicki said, they’ve already been utilizing the digital space to tell their stories. As the creator of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, he’s encouraged people with disabilities to make a movie with whatever they have available. As Weintraub said, making it digital allowed for nearly 1,000 extra participants last year.

Novicki hopes that Sundance’s inclusion efforts this year will be the first of many for other festivals. “When you go into the year with so much accessibility improvements, that’s only going to be a snowball effect, because you brought in an audience that is now enjoying films and can enjoy them from all over the world,” he said. As far as Ahmad is concerned, he certainly hopes Sundance will take the feedback with regards to this year’s festival and apply it to future in-person events.

“I am constantly seeing on social media folks tweeting out, This is the first time I’m gonna be [attending]’ for very specific reasons that are related to it being a physically inaccessible place,” he said. “I think it creates a lot of opportunities for us to radically re-envision, when it exists in the physical world again, how do we do it in a way that is a movement forward and not just go back to those entrenched structural inequalities that we struggle with,” he said.

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