Integrating Learning about a Community of Students with Disabilities through a Disability Film Festival for Communities of Students without Disabilities

By James P. Lawler, Pace University



Colleges contain 2 million students with disabilities from a community in the country of 54 million with disabilities.  Higher-functioning (i.e. less impaired) students with disabilities are eager to learn exciting fields and can be exceptional learners. However, students without disabilities, due to fear or ignorance, may focus on the impairment, instead of on the intelligence, of students with disabilities, misjudging the potential of those with disabilities.  The misjudged perceptions as to the potential of higher-functioning students with disabilities may be an explanation for a low number of them in integrated learning communities in a university.  The author of this blog post is addressing these misperceptions in a process of Disability Film Festivals at Pace University.

Disability Film Festivals

The author conducts annual Disability Film Festivals for largely learning communities of students without disabilities, in order to address acceptance of students with disabilities.  The films are different from mainstream media in that they distinctly highlight the diversity and the intelligence, rather than the impairment, of higher-functioning peer students with disabilities and others with disabilities.  The films apply inclusive narratives, expressly highlighting the students with disabilities with intricate but normal personalities – not the disabilities but the possibilities of potential.  The films also highlight prejudicial issues in society.  Annually the author has played 5-7 films selected from 27-51 films from the best-of-the-best of leading disability festivals in New York City or from films prepared by students with and without disabilities in the university, or 35 films since 2013, largely of millennial types with disabilities.  Each of the films, essentially inspirational short stories, is followed by discussions with distinguished panelists and self-advocates in the field of disability empowerment from the local neighborhood.  The program is played in 3-6 day periods of presentations to both students without and with disabilities, averaging 129-274 students in attendance.

Examples of Films from Disability Film Festivals

The Celebration of People with Disabilities in Films: Disability Film Festival 2017 at Pace University highlighted films of issues of those with disabilities in life scenarios:

  • The Commute highlighted impacts of non-accommodation of those with non-developmental physical disabilities needing commuting municipal services;
  • The Grocery Store highlighted impacts of gross intimidation of those with developmental disabilities by prejudicial types without disabilities;
  • The Interviewer introduced issues of prejudicial stereotyping of talented types with intellectual disabilities by prejudicial types without disabilities; and
  • The Sensory Overload introduced issues of reactions from non-sensitivity to those with developmental and intellectual disorders.

Most of the students without disabilities did not encounter enough of peer students with disabilities until they were engaging in the Disability Film Festivals.  Now, they are learning the potential of those with disabilities through the films. Moreover, they are even motivated to be supporters of them in the university.  As one of the students without disabilities summarized, “It is our issue, and we will be the solution.”

These films, available as proprietary selections through partnerships with the ReelAbilities Film Festival and the Sprout Film Festival, were presented recently at the World Café of the 2017 Atlantic Center for Learning Communities Retreat in West Harford, Connecticut.

Lessons Learned from the Program

Lessons learned from the Disability Film Festivals program are encouraging for those interested in initiating integrated learning communities of students with and without disabilities:

  1. The films in the program are deepening the knowledge of the students without disabilities at the university about the experiences of current and potential peer students with disabilities not already in learning communities of students without disabilities;
  2. The focus on the intelligence, not the impairment, of the students with disabilities is enhancing the feasibility of increasing interactions of students with and without disabilities in integrated learning communities;
  3. The focus on increasing the knowledge of moderately-impaired students with disabilities as those with potential in integrated learning communities of those without disabilities is a foundation for helping if not initiating anti-bullying and anti-intimidation initiatives in the university;
  4. The initiation of the film program is a limited proposition if not integrated with other programs for those with special needs, such as internal disability services and special needs technologies, in facilitating the learning communities involving students with disabilities in the university; and finally
  5. The program is justifying outreach to higher-functioning moderately-impaired students with disabilities in community colleges and middle / high schools to be in post-secondary universities.

The inclusiveness of a qualified but underserved population of students with disabilities in learning communities with students without disabilities is an opportunity for further research in a university.


The Disability Film Festivals are addressing the challenge of diversity in advocating for a least likely population to be in learning communities with students without disabilities – those with disabilities.  As mentioned, most of the students without disabilities did not encounter those with disabilities until they were engaging in the program, but they are learning more of the fairness in the potential of those higher-functioning nimble types with disabilities to be as productive in studies as themselves.   For those on the blog interested in learning communities for those with disabilities and without disabilities at their post-secondary institutions, Disability Film Festivals are a creative opportunity for a qualified underrepresented population of students to join in the life of a university.

Dr. James P. Lawler is Professor of Disability Studies and Information Technologies in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems of Pace University in New York City and is recognized with the national Jefferson Award for Public Service for his program at the university.

The author invites members of the Atlantic Center for Learning Communities to contact him at  for help in initiating Disability Film Festivals at their institutions and to join the audience at the Sixth Annual Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film at Pace University in March 2018.

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