Syracuse University Magazine

Faculty Filmmakers

Actors Mark Santangelo and Kayla McKeon of the Young Actors Workshop stroll down the red carpet at the premiere of People Like Me at Syracuse Stage.

Faculty Filmmakers Put Spotlight on Disability Issues

Artie Abrams, a character on the hit television series Glee, uses a wheel chair. Kevin McHale, the actor who plays him, does not. When Glee's producers were criticized for not casting a paraplegic in the role, they responded by adding a new character, Betty Jackson, a cheerleader who has Down syndrome, and casting Lauren Potter, an actor with Down syndrome, in the role. School of Education Dean Douglas Biklen G'73, a documentary producer whose 2004 film, Autism is a World, was nominated for an Academy Award, recalls that not long ago there were almost no characters with disabilities in popular drama, and the few who came along rarely strayed from predictable stereotype. "People with disabilities only appeared to highlight the good qualities of the story's main character, who was not a disabled person," he says. "The effect of seeing a character with a disability can be positive or negative depending on how it is done, but certainly there have been some excellent portrayals in recent years." Biklen's most recent film, Wretches & Jabberers, was released in April. It follows two men with autism, Tracy Thresher, a political activist, and Larry Bissonnette, an artist, as they travel around the world advocating the rights of people with disabilities.  

Drama professor Elizabeth Ingram is encouraged to see people with disabilities emerging from the shadows to take their turns at center stage, although she was personally way ahead of the curve on this. Since its founding in 1992, Ingram has been faculty advisor to the Young Actors Workshop, a pioneering community theater group where people with disabilities learn acting and other theatrical skills from undergraduates in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). "Seeing these actors helps the public understand that you don't have to be frightened of people or conditions you're not familiar with," she says. "No human being should be hidden. People with disabilities are part of our community and should be involved in the community. Somebody out of the ordinary, by nature, has something out of the ordinary to say, expanding everyone's knowledge and sensitivity." Evidence of this is abundant in People Like Me, a new documentary film that explores the workshop's weekly sessions at Syracuse Stage. Filmmakers Larry Elin '73, Steve Davis, and Douglas Quin, members of the Newhouse School faculty, provide glimpses of extraordinary moments of personal expression and communication between workshop members and SU students as they prepare for the group's annual stage production. "Over time, we saw people who had been quietly standing in corners become effusive and dramatic and very much part of the group," Elin says. "You could see them coming out of their shells and joining the drama students, whose love of performing is reflected in their every movement."

The Young Actors Workshop has sparked inquiries from a fair number of universities and organizations, and People Like Me may help make the Syracuse program a national model. "Of course it's wonderful to see people expressing themselves and to see the reactions of family members who may not have thought it possible," Ingram says. "The benefits to students are less obvious. They become better students by teaching what they learn. Some of our graduates make teaching or drama therapy part of their professional careers."

People Like Me and Wretches & Jabberers are characterized by explicit images of people with disabilities asserting themselves, politically, artistically, and socially. In Losing It (2000), faculty filmmaker Sharon Greytak shifts emphasis to neglect and isolation. Greytak, who uses a wheelchair, sets out on a trip around the world to interview people with disabilities. She encounters disturbing results before reaching her first destination. Detained for no apparent reason while clearing customs in Moscow, she offers this in her voiceover narration: "I knew immediately that none of them had ever spoken to a disabled person before." There was that pure sense in the voices of only seeing my exterior. I was an invalid to them. Special baggage—that was my identity." Each of the people she interviews has a special tale of struggle, but while conditions may vary among countries, a constant emerges: The dignity of people with disabilities is not a priority on the agenda of contemporary society.

Biklen believes media representations play a role in creating a more inclusive society. "It's hard for many people to imagine that someone like Tracy or Larry could have a sense of humor or personal feelings," he says. "Letting people see them on screen is the most effective way I know of showing what they're capable of." KC Duggan, managing director of the Syracuse International Film Festival, agrees, and is proud Wretches & Jabberers was screened at the festival's annual Disabilities in Cinema program last year. "Film is one of the greatest educational tools, and films on disability and disability rights help people understand the issues," Duggan says. "We all struggle with our differences, and films allow us to see the struggles of others in human terms."  —David Marc

Watch the video: Celebrating the Art of Inclusion 


In a scene from People Like Me, drama major Amy Shapiro '09 (left) works with actor Chris Peck.


Students and actors perform a song together in People Like Me.

met.jpgIn Wretches & Jabberers, Tracy Thresher (left) and Larry Bissonnette stand in front of a billboard in Japan. 


At Orange Central last fall, drama professor Elizabeth Ingram (right) makes a point during a panel discussion on the role of arts in inclusive education.