The Recorder – Incapacity in America: Northampton filmmaker probes environmental and public well being components 

A little over 30 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George HW Bush. This was the first major effort to protect people from discrimination because they had a disability – just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, gender, and other factors.

But as Northampton filmmaker PJ Moynihan sees, disability has become a more complicated issue in the US in 2020 as environmental issues, economic and social inequalities, and now the pandemic result in higher disability rates among Americans of all ages, especially those in low-income communities.

It’s a topic that Moynihan, an independent filmmaker who grew up in Holyoke, outlines in a documentary he recently developed with the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD), a nonprofit education and design group based in Boston that works to improve accessibility for the elderly and elderly people with disabilities in a range of settings.

The Changing Reality of Disability in America: 2020, which first aired a few months ago on the IHCD website and on a number of video-on-demand platforms, is part of a larger project that IHCD is working on to mark its 30th anniversary -Year anniversary is involved in the passage of the ADA.

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

In 2017 he made another film entitled “Life Ain’t Fair” about the history of the Three County Fair. it was shown at the Music Academy in late summer.

On a phone call, Moynihan said his new film, which explores the links between disability and factors such as incarceration, pollution, combat injuries, and homelessness, is an emotional challenge given the many people he interviewed.

As a filmmaker it is also “very exciting and very meaningful to be part of a developing story”.

“These are not conventional narratives about disabilities,” he said. “We try to access underreported stories and examine where there are gaps in the data in order to find people with a disability that has been aggravated by the place they live, the social conditions of their lives, or their communities . “

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

Indeed, Valerie Fletcher, managing director of IHCD, notes that today more than one in four Americans are considered disabled and many of them “do not fall into the stereotypical image of a wheelchair user. Many of these people live in disadvantaged communities and we need to understand how race and inequality become a factor in these conditions. “

For example, the 30-minute documentary begins with an interview with an African American woman, Ebony Cargile, in Flint, Michigan, who had to get her 10-year-old son Ryan out of the local school system because he was getting more and more disciplined for behavior problems.

But Ryan, like many children in Flint, a predominantly black community, is said to have been poisoned by lead in the city’s drinking water in 2014 and 2015, which in turn led to developmental delays and learning problems. Up to 12,000 children were believed to have been exposed to high-lead water, a story that at the time sparked national outrage among officials accused of ignoring and prolonging the crisis.

Kristin Totten, an education attorney with the Michigan ACLU, tells Moynihan that she believes Flint’s school and city officials have not addressed the problems many school children are now facing, at least in part because of deep-rooted racism: ” Nobody understands and comes 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 every aspect of the new documentary: filming, screenwriting, directing and producing. He has two long-term employees who make sound and graphics for him.

He also did media work for IHDC 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. “

In order to do The Changing Reality of Disability in America, in which people were interviewed and filmed in various locations, including Michigan, New York State, San Francisco and Boston, Moynihan had to go through some interviews with them Addressing the restrictions imposed on the pandemic had to be done via Zoom.

However, the inclusion of COVID-19 in the production helped fuel the ideas for the documentary, according to Moynihan. The fact that infection rates from the virus were higher in many minority communities than in whites points to the same issues of inequality and the environment – physical, social and cultural environments – that contribute to disability.

Moynihan is also involved in another film project specifically dealing with the pandemic. “Project Frontline” is a four-part documentary series about how Massachusetts dealt with the COVID crisis.

The first episode, which was also shown on various video-on-demand platforms earlier this year, is “a real-time look at how the crisis began in the state and how government and industry reacted,” said Moynihan, the documentary’s producer .

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

“We have seen very strong collaboration between the government, private companies and the healthcare system,” said Boyd. “A lot of people rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘What can we do?'”

The first episode, titled “The Crisis,” examines how technology companies have retooled their production lines to make devices like surgical masks and respirators, and takes into account coordination between agencies like the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and Governor Charlie Baker’s “COVID Command Center “.

“We don’t know where the series is going yet as the pandemic is an ongoing problem, but we like to think it will provide a good look at this pretty good ecosystem we have in the Commonwealth,” Boyd said.

The “Project Frontline” series, like the disabled film, is “an ongoing story,” noted Moynihan. “We don’t know how it will turn out, and these are the best stories we can work on as filmmakers.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]. For more information on Moynihan’s film projects, visit

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