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Peeling Back the Label

aeAt the Imagine Supported Living Services Short Film Festival, individuals with disabilities prove there is more to them than meets the eye

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” Brianne Holeman proudly asserts across the quiet conference room. “I live by that every day.” 

We’re sitting in the Santa Cruz chapter of Hope Services, one of more than 50 agencies in Santa Cruz County that serve children, adults and seniors with developmental disabilities. Holeman is here as a client. She may have been diagnosed with a learning disability 23 years ago, but she refuses to let it define her.

“Being labeled with a disability does not mean that you are at a disadvantage,” Holeman says. “You are never as alone as you feel.”

On Sept. 28, Holeman and several other locals living with a variety of developmental disabilities, will showcase some of their talents as part of the second annual Imagine Supported Living Services (SLS) Short Film Festival. Her film—The Open Your Mind Peer Group Story—documents the peer group that she formed a year ago, which is run by and for individuals with disabilities.

The film is one of 14 set to screen at this year’s festival, which will take place at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. The event was created by Imagine in 2012 as a way to celebrate 10 years of empowering people with developmental disabilities through service and advocacy, and to highlight the strengths and skills of the people they serve, their families, friends, coworkers, and allies. Following the screenings, audience members will have the opportunity to speak with the film directors, purchase food and drinks, and participate in a silent auction, with all proceeds benefiting Imagine’s services.

The number of featured films jumped from four to 14 since last year’s event, due to an overwhelmingly positive reception from the community, according to Julie Rienhardt, Imagine’s executive director.

“After the first film festival, so many people with disabilities and their staff approached me asking to make a film,” says Rienhardt. “So we opened up the call for films this year to the entire community. We also offered volunteers that could help with the technical aspects of creating a film because we really wanted to give everyone the opportunity to share their story.”

The festival is also an opportunity for Imagine to bridge the gap between the funding it receives from the state—which only covers employee’s salaries—and the cost of providing individually tailored services to each client. Imagine’s Board President, Mark Tracy, notes that a fundraising opportunity like the film festival allows clients to play an active role in their care.

“We are moving away from a model where care providers make all the choices and define all the rules; people with disabilities now have more control over their lives,” explains Tracy. “At Imagine, they play an active role in deciding things like their housemates, the people they work with, and the daily activities that they participate in. I think the films will show how the world of services for people with disabilities is changing.”

The sheer variety of film subjects—from a monthly women’s group made up of people with and without disabilities, to interviews with the Santa Cruz Warriors—is a testament the new ways in which individuals with disabilities are feeling empowered.

“I feel happy to be represented. I want [audiences] to learn more about me in the films,” says Toby Ames, another participating film director. “I want to be a star in front of everyone for things that I am an expert at. I want to talk to them about why [the movie] should be important to them. I want people to be more active just like me.”

Ames’ film is the result of his work with Hope Services’ Community Membership and Media Program. In it, Ames interviews assemblymembers and political activists about advocating for people with disabilities at a legislative breakfast in Sacramento.

“The rewarding part for me, is being able to show our films on community television, on YouTube, and at this festival,” says Mike Nichols, assistant manager for Hope Services’ Media Program and the co-director of Ames’ film. “That is one of the benefits of film—it can become bigger than just our local community, and it can spread to other communities to show that people with disabilities make a difference.”

Reflecting back on her own film, Holeman believes that the impact made on audiences is just as strongly felt among filmmakers and their subjects.

“When you make any kind of movie, you have to find the footage that will best represent what you’re trying to say,” she says. “I think the underlying message of mine is that you can do anything you put your mind to, even if you are labeled as disabled—I just don’t let it define who I am.” 


The Imagine Short Film Festival begins at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. $10. For tickets, call 464-8355 or visit imaginesls.org.

Comments (1)Add Comment
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written by Sabine Otto, September 26, 2013
Congratulations for having found a way to creatively share your message! I like this from the article:
Quote: Imagine’s Board President, Mark Tracy, notes that a fundraising opportunity like the film festival allows clients to play an active role in their care.
This is so empowering!

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