On a cold and misty evening last Thursday in Durham, hundreds of theatergoers gathered in Fletcher Hall for a free screening of local documentary filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer's latest work, A New Kind of Listening. The audience was studded with members of the disabled and disabled-advocacy community, which mirrored the faces onscreen: The film documents a year in the life of the Community Inclusive Theater Group, which brings together disabled and nondisabled performers to co-create a theater piece over many months.
The film was warmly received. It is tender without being sentimental, and it has many moments of genuine grace. It's also a determinedly political work, raising important questions about our society's traditional practices of segregating people with disabilities. And though some of the questions it raises are unintentionally connected to a separate debate about the controversial practice of "facilitated communication," its passionate argument for inclusion and respect makes it a powerful piece of advocacy.
The theater group's director, Richard Reho, exudes an earnestness at odds with the irony-soaked spirit of our age. Indeed, there are actors in Hollywood (Christopher Guest and company) who have built careers out of satirizing the sort of unselfconscious interactions that occur between the performers. But Reho fosters an atmosphere of acceptance, creating space for rich interplay between performers of different abilities. The intricate hand gestures of a severely autistic young woman named Laura Spray, which might ordinarily be seen as strange and ritualistic, are interpreted through the lens of dance as evocative, expressive movement. Megan Jones, a self-effacing, learning-disabled poet, delivers her refreshingly plainspoken yet ambitious verse with a naked honesty that would be hard for a "normal" poet to match. "In our little ways/ we are moving the universe/ because we can," she recites, summing up the troupe's mission.
Dalsheimer found his most compelling character in Chris Mueller-Medlicott, a 20-year-old whose cerebral palsy left him unable to speak and to control his muscles. As a child he was diagnosed as "nonverbal" and "severely mentally retarded." Polly Medlicott, his mother, felt betrayed by a medical establishment that labeled Chris retarded because he could not speak and provided no help in seeking alternative methods of communication.
Footage from family films illuminates the tragic arc of Mueller-Medlicott's childhood. It seems clear that despite the brain damage he suffered at birth that left him unable to communicate, he could understand and respond to those around him. But with no avenue for self-expression, left to wither in classrooms ill-equipped to address his needs, he gradually withdrew and "shut down," as his mother explains in the film. "He resigned himself to not being seen as a person by other people."
When he was 15, Chris's family enrolled him in the Facilitated Communication Institute at Syracuse University. The institute pioneered the use of flip charts and special keyboards to enable communication by people who cannot speak, sign or type. But critics contend that some of the institute's methods, in which a facilitator guides the hand of the disabled subject, leave it unclear who is really doing the communicating.
Contrary to its intentions, A New Kind of Listening is likely to embolden critics of facilitated communication, or FC. Many shots of Chris at his keyboard show him appearing to look elsewhere while his facilitator, Margaret Heath, guides his hand to the keys. In addition, the various clients Heath is shown helping all speak with a similarly cryptic, oracular phrasing that suggests collaborative effort. After seeing a rough cut of the film, officials at the institute had sufficient qualms to request a disclaimer at the end: "Due to individual neurological challenges, the facilitated communication documented in this film does not reflect current best practice standards."
Despite the doubts raised by what Dalsheimer's camera captured, Chris' mother, Polly, remarked later that she's "definitely satisfied" that all thoughts he expressed through FC were his own. The debate about standards and practices of FC will likely continue until technological innovations that better access the minds of people with disabilities render them moot. But the film's larger point, about the need for greater communication with and inclusion of the disabled, remains vital. "We don't want this film to be just about FC," Dalsheimer says. "There are all kinds of ways to access people.
"We want the film to support the arts as an alternative to the standard Western medications, institutionalization and isolation," he adds. "We should be looking more for community-based solutions and seeing what people are really capable of."