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Documentary on disability rights doesn't do justice to the fight it chronicles

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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Haddayr Copley-Woods: "What we really need is a series."
Courtesy Haddayr Copley-Woods

Haddayr Copley-Woods, Minneapolis, is a copywriter, blogger and mother. She is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network. 

The upcoming PBS documentary, "Lives Worth Living," just isn't enough.

You simply cannot do justice to a decades-long, continuing struggle in 54 minutes. And you especially can't do it in a piece that is confusing and jumbled. 

I knew there was something amiss before I even cracked the case. The press release claimed "Lives Worth Living" as the "first" documentary telling the story of the Disability Rights Movement, but it isn't. Billy Golfus, who is himself disabled, created the absolutely wonderful When Billy Broke His Head back in 1995.

Ignoring a seminal documentary created by a disabled person betrays an ignorance of the topic and a lack of respect for our accomplishments that I'm afraid pervades the film.

It starts out somewhat hopefully: providing a brief but eye-opening montage explaining how our system treated disabled people before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (Hint: the answer is "very very badly.") It outlines a fairly coherent explanation of the federal building takeover in San Francisco that led to enforcement of the Rehabilitation Act. After that, however, there is a vague jumble of speeches, interviews and images of undefined struggle for decades. Then, the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Yay! We won; the end.

Missing from all of this: a coherent and clear idea of the timeline of events. Key legislation, court decisions and scholarship. Some terrific songs. Most distressing, it is missing any mention of the specific pressing legislative, legal and social issues that we are still fighting for today, such as the Community Choice Act.

There are things to like about this documentary. The filmmaker interviewed some funny, articulate, interesting people such as Fred Fay, Judy Heumann (who was particularly wonderful), Judi Chamberlin and Bob Kafka. It's empowering to see some of the archival footage. The interviews and the archival footage are reason enough to watch this film, and I hope you will.

But there is no narrator and no text informing viewers of historical details to fit anything together or provide context. Most of the protest images don't even have identifying placards. The film never identifies our leaders beyond their names and their organizations, often using unexplained acronyms.

This pervasive vagueness removes our agency as dedicated, impassioned and smart agitators for change. It leaves the impression that we were a disorganized rabble with vague needs and demands, and that it was up to the able-bodied legislators at the end to put it all together for us.

For instance, the filmmaker lovingly chronicles macho behind-the-scenes showdowns between able-bodied legislators and staff people as well as their long, self-congratulatory speeches. That the filmmaker chose to end this movie in this way — complete with Ted Kennedy thanking not disabled people for hurling their bodies up the Capitol steps, in front of buses and into jail, but thanking their families at the passage of the ADA —  is extremely problematic.

I hope you'll watch it anyway, especially if you had no idea that there was such a thing as a disability rights movement. (In the Twin Cities, the film will air Dec. 18  on TPT.) You will at least have a few of your preconceptions challenged.

But it's not enough. It's not nearly enough. What we really need is a series, and a filmmaker with the time, funding, heart and respect to truly do this topic justice.