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Ski Town Turned Hollywood: Sundance Making Film Festival More Accessible For Ind. With Disabilities

Dani Hayes
If you’ve ever been to Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, you know that its historic main street is crammed with people trying to enjoy the festival. The Sundance Institute is trying to make the festival more access for ind. with disabilities.";

Every January, Hollywood basically makes a temporary home in the mountains of Utah for two weeks. But with the exciting movie stars and film screenings comes congestion, the kind of congestion Park City is not intended for.

“There were some challenges related to accessibility," said Nancy Weintraub, chief development officers for Easterseals, the nation’s largest disability service organization. "As everyone knows, Park City is a very old city and we want to keep the historicness of the city but it does provide some challenges for individuals with disabilities.”

Easterseals collaborate with other organization to help increase their accessibility. Last year, the Sundance Institute recruited the organization to explore different ways on how to make the film festival more accessible for persons with disabilities.

“So Easterseals has worked with the Sundance Institute last year. They invited us out as guests to experience the festival, enjoy the festival, and kind of look at it from a fresh lens, regarding a disability and diversity perspective,” Nancy said.

After the festival, they took their findings to the people at the Sundance Institute in charge of inclusion.

“We had a year to talk together, talk about how we can increase disability inclusion and diversity at the festival, not only in programming and in panels but the accessibility of Park City itself,” she said.

During this year’s festival, all of Park City Transit buses were wheelchair accessible and all bus drivers were trained to provide assistance to those who may need it. Karim Ahmad is director of outreach and inclusion for the Sundance Institute and says that inclusion, especially for underrepresented communities, has always been a part of the Sundance mission.

“As we work so broadly across a wide array of communities that we are trying to serve, it’s really really important for us to partner with folks that have deep experience with specific communities so we can really learn from and understand the specific nature of how we can improve the work that we are doing, both in service of our artists through our artist program but also making the festival as much of an accessible place as possible," Karim said. "As Nancy mentioned, Park City is a city with a lot of historical protections and so some of these places and venues are not as accessible as we’d like them to be but it’s really important for us to dig in and really see what we can do.”

Nancy tells me about a change the institute took on to make the festival more accessible.  

“Another one of the Sundance Institute’s locations is called the Filmmaker’s Lodge and last year they had some diversity panels in there and it was very difficult for some of our participants that had disabilities to access that building," she said. "So the Sundance Institute took it upon themselves to actually put an elevator in that building.”

Credit Dani Hayes

One thing that Easterseals found during their observation year was that the festival had a number of diversity panels but only a few included disabilities.

“There’s a lot of diversity discussions. We can talk about race, we can talk about race, we can talk about culture – disability often gets left off the table in the diversity discussion. So we are here to make sure that disability is included in that diversity discussion," Nancy said. "We are actually curating a panel this year Abilities Unlimited: The Real ‘D’ In Diversity, which stands for disability.”

On the panel was the casting director for A Quiet Place along with one of the actors in the movie, Millicent Simmonds. The movie is post-apocalyptic sci-fi, horror film directed by John Krasinski. Basically, the premise is there are these creatures with a heightened sense of hearing and if they hear you, they kill you. It centers on a single family with a deaf daughter. Casting Director Maribeth Fox was adamant that they hire an actual deaf girl to play the part.

“Our journey began before A Quiet Place actually with a featured film called Wonderstruck, and we were given the challenge of doing a worldwide search for a deaf girl," she said. "And through that search, we narrowed it down from 120 tapes to 10 tapes to two to one, and she’s sitting to my right. Throughout that process, we all learned so much about the deaf culture and the community and just how to be inclusive in our audition process.

"And so, John Krasinski called and said, ‘I’ve heard you’ve done this search and I’m making a film.’ His purpose was to tell a family story and inclusion was a part of that family story. In A Quiet Place, we not only did another search, which ended in Millie, but we tried to, for the little boy tried to bring in deaf families and little children that grew up with deaf parents. And John was super committed to keeping those roles authentic.”

Actor Millicent Simmonds, who is from Bountiful, was cast in A Quiet Place and was asked what it’s like working in the film industry. She answered through a sign language interpreter.

“My experience with Hollywood and the industry and with A Quiet Place I just feel like people have been wonderful humans that we were just one big family and we supported each other and we loved each other and it didn’t matter what were doing, it was just that was the amazing piece. I want to see more of that too. I want to have inclusion be part of things so we can be a big family. It was amazing," Millicent said.

Looking forward, Wendy sees a Sundance Film Festival where the inclusion is automatic.

“As an Easterseals organization, we hope that at some point we don’t have to have dedicated panels anymore, and we’re seeing that slowly but surely every year but in five years or 10 years we’ll just be part of any and every panel here at the Sundance Institute and the films that are represented truly are fully inclusive,” Wendy said.

In addition, festival organizers plan to support more diverse film critics and journalists who attend the festival, focusing on people of color and persons with disabilities.