Disability in America: Northampton filmmaker probes environmental and public health factors 

  • An image from “The Changing Reality of Disability in America” taken outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Digital Eyes Film

  • A scene from the film “The Changing Reality of Disability in America,” showing Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. The documentary posits that disability is often linked to the physical, social and cultural environments that people are a part of. Photo courtesy of Digital Eyes Film

  • Northampton filmmaker PJ Moynihan has directed and produced a number of documentaries in recent years that examine issues of public health. Photo courtesy of Digital Eyes Film

  • This image from “The Changing Reality of Disability in America” depicts Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. Holding the sign is Clarence Dials Jr. Photo courtesy of Digital Eyes Film

  • Ebony Cargile and her son, Ryan, of Flint, Michigan in a scene from “The Changing Reality of Disability in America: 2020.” Photo courtesy Digital Eyes Film

Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2020

A little over 30 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, marking the first major effort to protect people from discrimination because they had a disability — much as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, sex and other factors.

But as Northampton filmmaker PJ Moynihan sees it, disability in the U.S. in 2020 has become a more complicated subject, as environmental problems, economic and social inequities and now the pandemic lead to a higher rate of disability among Americans of all ages, most notably those in low-income communities.

It’s an issue that Moynihan, an independent filmmaker who grew up in Holyoke, outlines in a new documentary he has developed with the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD), a Boston education and design nonprofit group that works to improve access for the elderly and those with disabilities in a range of environments.

“The Changing Reality of Disability in America: 2020,” which can be seen starting in mid-September on the IHCD website and on a number of video-on-demand platforms, is part of larger project the IHCD is involved with to mark the 30th anniversary of passage of the ADA.

The film also represents Moynihan’s latest foray into chronicling public health issues, after he began his film career with stories about baseball and boxing, including local Holyoke sports. In 2017, he produced “Healing Voices,” a documentary about alternative treatment for people with mental illness, and he’s developing “Recovering Addiction,” a look at the crisis around substance abuse.

He made another 2017 film, “Life Ain’t Fair,” about the history of the Three County Fair; it screened at the Academy of Music late that summer.

In a recent phone call, Moynihan said his new film — which explores the links between disability and factors such as incarceration, environmental pollution,  combat injuries and homelessness — was something of an emotional challenge, given many people he interviewed are struggling in life.

But as a filmmaker, he says, it’s also “very exciting and very meaningful to be part of an evolving story.”

“These are not conventional disability narratives,” he said. “We’re trying to get at underreported stories, looking at where there are gaps in the data to find people who may have a disability that has been heightened by the place they live, by the social conditions of their life or their communities.”

“We need as a society to find ways to support these folks,” he added.

Indeed, Valerie Fletcher, executive director of IHCD, notes that more than one in four Americans is considered to have a disability today, and many of them “don’t fall into the stereotypical image of someone in a wheelchair. Many of these people are in disadvantaged communities, and we have to understand how race and inequity become a factor in these conditions.”

For instance, the 30-minute documentary begins with an interview of an African-American woman, Ebony Cargile, in Flint, Michigan who had to take her 10-year-old son, Ryan, out of the local school system because he kept getting disciplined for behavioral issues.

But Ryan, like many children in Flint, a predominantly Black community, is believed to have been poisoned by lead in the city’s drinking water in 2014 and 2015, in turn suffering developmental delays and learning problems. As many as 12,000 children were believed to have been exposed to water with high lead levels, a story that provoked national outrage at the time at officials who were accused of ignoring and prolonging the crisis.

Kristin Totten, an education attorney with the Michigan ACLU, tells Moynihan she believes Flint school and city officials have failed to address the problems many schoolchildren now struggle with, at least in part from ingrained racism: “No one is understanding and coming in with the help that is needed on a systemic level,” she said.

Filming amid COVID-19

Moynihan, whose company is called Digital Eyes Film, handled almost all aspects of the new documentary: filming, screenwriting, directing and producing. He has two longtime collaborators who do sound and graphics for him.

He also has done IHDC’s media work for a number of years, and Fletcher, the group’s director, calls him “very empathetic and a really good listener. I think that’s a big part of what makes him such a talented filmmaker.”

To make “The Changing Reality of Disability in America” — which involved interviewing and filming people in several locations, including Michigan, New York state, San Francisco and Boston — Moynihan also had to grapple with the limitations imposed by the pandemic, as some interviews had to be done via Zoom.

But factoring COVID-19 into the production, says Moynihan, helped reinforce the ideas animating the documentary. The fact that infection rates from the virus have been higher in many minority communities than in white ones, he says, points to the same problems of inequity and environment — physical, social and cultural environments — contributing to disability.

Moynihan is also involved in another film project, this one specifically about the pandemic. “Project Frontline” is a projected four-part documentary series about how Massachusetts has grappled with the COVID crisis.

The first episode, expected to screen Sept. 21 on various video-on-demand platforms, is “a real-time look at how the crisis began in the state and how government and industry responded,” said Moynihan, who is the documentary’s producer.

He has worked on the project with Boyd Industries, a Berkshire County technology company that does material sourcing and product development for companies in the medical device and life science fields. The company’s chief commercial officer, Matthew Boyd, says he sees the film series offering “a really positive story” on how the state dealt with being one of the early epicenters of the virus.

“We’ve seen some very compelling collaboration between the state, private companies and the health care system,” said Boyd. “A lot of people rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘What can we do?’”

The first episode, called “The Crisis,” looks at how tech companies, for instance, retooled their production lines to make equipment such as surgical masks and respirators, and it considers the coordination between agencies such as the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and Gov. Charlie Baker’s “COVID Command Center.”

“We don’t know yet where the series will go, since the pandemic is an ongoing issue, but we like to think it will offer a good look at this pretty good ecosystem we have in the commonwealth,” said Boyd.

The “Project Frontline” series, like the disability film, is “an ongoing story,” Moynihan noted. “We don’t know how it will turn out, and those are the best stories to work on as a filmmaker.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. More information about Moynihan’s film projects is available at digitaleyesfilm.com.