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Access Made the Difference at Getting Real '20 Documentary Conference: An Attendee Reflects

By Reveca Torres

When I think about going to a conference, I imagine arriving at a nice hotel downtown in a trendy city. I’ve traveled a couple hours to get there and packed my suitcase with business-casual clothing that will look good but will be comfortable enough to withstand the too-hot or too-cold hotel ballrooms or meeting rooms. There will be continental breakfasts and carefully planned-out lunches where you can meet other attendees and exchange business cards. Not in 2020! I attended my first conference in yoga pants and a t-shirt with snacks and a coffee mug on my desk, a cat and dog, and stretch breaks whenever I wanted.  

Part of my program as a 2020 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow was to attend the Getting Real ‘20 conference, cover some of the sessions, network and learn from others. As the year progressed it soon became clear I would not be going to Los Angeles for this event, but it was a pleasant surprise when IDA quickly pivoted and began to work on hosting the conference through digital platforms. I’m sure I was not the only one who wondered what this would look like and how successful it would be. There were many people working around the clock, stressed out and hoping this would work. From finding the right platforms to ensuring accessibility and scheduling presenters, the conference was a success and there were many things I appreciated about it.

To begin, the theme of Getting Real ‘20 put a smile on my face because they are three words that are constantly on my mind as a Latinx woman with a disability: Access. Power. Possibility. I first heard about the theme from Maggie Bowman, director of programming for Getting Real, during a meeting with Matt Lauterbach, founder of All Senses Go, a company dedicated to advocacy and education in the media-making community that highlights the importance of captions, description and accessible events for all audiences. Bowman shared the vision for the conference and plans to provide accessibility for attendees of all abilities, in addition to more long-term goals for IDA to be inclusive of the disability community. She listened with intent and asked thoughtful questions as she worked with Lauterbach, who consulted with a number of people with disabilities to develop a plan. “I see myself as a middleman,” says Lauterbach, “I can’t speak for them, but I can learn from them and pass along what I learned. I was happy to connect IDA with filmmakers with disabilities and share best practices.” Lauterbach compiled and shared suggestions that would provide a positive experience for attendees with disabilities beyond the minimum requirements of compliance. 

The conference staff also worked with FWD-Doc, a collective of filmmakers with disabilities that originated at Getting Real '18 from a convening of Deaf and disabled filmmakers and allies. Together they planned two events—a panel entitled “Expanding Expression: Creative Opportunities of Audio Description and Captioning” and a breakout session for filmmakers with disabilities, and their allies. FWD-Doc also provided a document with best practices and accessibility tips for presenters and panelists. It was obvious that the Getting Real staff took this information from FWD-Doc and All Senses Go to heart and implemented what they learned. One attendee and member of the FWD-Doc group shares, “IDA's Getting Real is the single most accessible event I've ever attended, and IDA is doing all the not-that-hard-to-do practices that really make a difference. This is not to say there's not always room for improvement, but I think they've done a spectacular job.”

When asked about this year’s theme and how it related to disability, Michele Spitz, an advocate for audio description in film, founder of Woman of Her Word and panelist for the Expanding Expression session, maintains,

“Access is not a luxury, it’s a right, and everyone should have access to all media regardless of the subject matter. I think there’s tremendous power in having access to everything and to have a voice in everything. And as far as possibility, I consider the possibilities endless. We’re moving into that phase in terms of access. And I do think the possibilities are out there. They’re not impossibilities.”

Some things that stood out to me during the conference:

Land Acknowledgements. As presenters introduced themselves and shared preferred pronouns, they followed with honoring the Indigenous land they were joining from and invited attendees to do so in the chat box. It was a great way to see who was joining and from where. Plus, there were some chat box interactions between people who recognized their friends or people they knew—a digital variation to seeing your friend across the room at the conference and going over to say hello!

Visual Descriptions. It is best practice to give a short visual description of yourself and your physical background when giving a presentation so that those who are blind or visually impaired can have access to that information. Often people forget to do this. Presenters were asked to do visual descriptions when they introduced themselves and it was great to see that most did it, or if they forgot, they acknowledged it and made sure to do it even if it was towards the end of their presentation. Visual descriptions are fun because sometimes the person shares extra details or information we might not have gotten at a glance.

ASL Interpreters. Two ASL interpreters were available for each session, and they switched out every 15 minutes to get a break. Typically, events do not provide ASL interpreters unless someone specifically requests it, and they must do it by a certain time to guarantee someone will be available. This means the responsibility lies on the attendee to make sure they have access. By providing ASL at all sessions, Getting Real attendees could confidently participate and have access to all the information everyone else was getting. It also made it possible for someone to change their mind at the last minute and go to another session, knowing they also had interpreters.

ASL Networking. I recently learned from Deaf filmmaker Jade Bryan that when she goes to film festivals or conferences, ASL interpreters are provided during sessions but often leave when the session is over. This leaves the Deaf attendee excluded from networking opportunities that can happen in between or after sessions or during social events. Although this conference took place through a digital platform, there were opportunities for networking, and it was refreshing to see specific opportunities for networking that provided ASL interpreters. 

Captions and Transcripts. All sessions provided live captioning via a link that was shared often in the chat box. Ideally, captions would have been on the main screen without needing a second window open on a screen, but this was a good alternative and the transcript allowed one to go back and read if they missed something. Although I do not require captions, I was able to use them often when my internet connection was weak and the audio froze.

Collectives and Intersections. The first thing I saw when I went on the website to register for the conference was that it was free to attend EVERYTHING (talk about access!), but you had the option to make a donation with registration to groups such as Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Queer Doc, FWD-Doc, A-Doc and Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, among others. I looked forward to seeing how each of these groups would be represented throughout the event and had the opportunity to participate in several breakout sessions. Some of the participants I saw in one session also joined a different session and there was an interchange of ideas among people of different and intersecting identities. Groups were sharing, listening and processing—power, privilege, barriers, access, and imagining an evolving documentary landscape. I appreciated that breakout sessions were not recorded or shared so that participants felt comfortable to share in a safe space.

Often it takes disability advocates like Jim LeBrecht, co-director, with Nicole Newnham, of Crip Camp and founder of FWD-Doc, to step up and spark change with a simple question: “Why aren’t we including people with disabilities?” As more and more organizations are becoming aware of what it means to truly be diverse, equitable and inclusive, IDA is an example of recognizing areas of improvement and doing the bittersweet work of making change within. 

Getting Real ‘20 was an exercise for IDA to implement logistical recommendations in providing access to attendees with disabilities. However, the work does not stop there, and hopefully this is just one plot point in a cultural shift of the film industry and society at large. Change does not always happen quickly, and it is a process of growth, understanding and taking action. The important thing is that organizations and groups are transparent, communicating among each other and taking steps to do better. I look forward to witnessing other organizations and event organizers follow the lead of IDA and Getting Real ‘20 by doing their homework and putting in the effort to implement inclusion at all levels. This is not about doing the bare minimum and meeting compliance. This is about holding access as an important societal value.

If we all have Access, we find our Power and with that there is endless Possibility.

Reveca Torres is an artist, filmmaker and disability advocate. She is founder of BACKBONES, co-director of ReelAbilities Film Festival Chicago and a 2020 IDA Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow.