In high school, many students’ anxieties might concern prom or their latest math exam. For Sonya Rio-Glick, she had another worry that many in her school did not—long flights of marble stairs.
Rio-Glick, now a freshman performing arts major, held a screening of her documentary The Souls of Our Feet last Friday for an audience of about 20 Emerson students. The film examined the experiences people with disabilities have in their educational, physical, personal, and sexual lives.
Rio-Glick, who was born with cerebral palsy, said she produced the feature-length documentary to educate able-bodied audiences about what it’s like to have a disability. Since the film was produced in 2014, Rio-Glick has held upwards of seven screenings at various locations in her hometown of Albany, New York, and schools and health centers in Boston like Northeastern University and The Meeting Point.
“To me, the able majority are the people that need it most,” Rio-Glick said.
The film tackles microaggressions, or subtle but offensive phrases and actions. It details ways that people with disabilities face discrimination through either verbal or physical acts.
“Not every disabled person had the best language or was the most eloquent, but that's not harmful because they're living it,” Rio-Glick said. “Whereas if an able-bodied person is insensitive, it has this negative ripple effect.”
In high school, Rio-Glick said she faced obstacles, both physical and emotional. Prior to Emerson, she said the high school she attended was virtually inaccessible, with steep flights of stairs being the only way to get to and from class. Rio-Glick said the lack of protection for people with disabilities at her high school was part of what inspired her to create The Souls of Our Feet, and she began working on it in her senior year.
Rio-Glick said that her experience so far at the college has been substantially better.
“Emerson has been a godsend,” Rio-Glick said. “There are a lot of stairs, but there are also a lot of elevators, which is what I need to get around. And the people here, even if they don’t know a lot about disability, usually want to start a conversation about it with me.”
Rio-Glick said that many able-bodied people tend to view those with disabilities with pity, which can be harmful.
“Many people see a person with a disability and think, ‘Oh, we have to be nice to this person,’” Rio-Glick said.
She described something she calls a “caretaker complex,” a term she has coined to describe those who feel obligated to treat people with disabilities as though they’re childlike. Although this mentality often comes from a place of good intention, Rio-Glick said that it can make relationships, both platonic and romantic, difficult.
“It automatically rules out the possibility of dating, mostly because someone who views me as a child won’t consider that as a possibility,” Rio-Glick said.
Rio-Glick’s film also addressed the intersection between queerness and disability. She identifies as a queer woman and also noted that there are times where she feels other facets of her identity are overlooked because of her cerebral palsy.
“Women are portrayed in the media as the soft, fragile, and docile persons,” Rio-Glick said. “And by the same token, people with physical disabilities are seen as fragile and docile as well. The space in the world I’ve had to carve out is a little loud, and little boisterous, and I have to take up my own space, because if I don’t, no one is going to give it to me.”
The experience Rio-Glick had interviewing subjects for the film proved to be challenging, she said. In addition to more than eight people with disabilities featured in the documentary, Rio-Glick also spoke to a handful of able-bodied students at her high school. These subjects represented many diverse opinions, ranging from informed and tolerant views to the polar opposite.
One student, who used the word “cripple” to describe people with disabilities, also said he wouldn’t enjoy dating someone with one because they wouldn’t be able to “go out dancing” or “fight people and take care of themselves.”
“In general, I had to prepare myself,” Rio-Glick said. “I didn’t know him at all, which I was kind of excited about, because I kind of wanted to get a holistic view of disability.”
That being said, there were some aspects of the interview which Rio-Glick found difficult.
“When he said words like cripple—you have to think that this person can see that I have a physical disability, there was some shock in that,” Rio-Glick said. “But, he was one of my last interviews so I had gotten down this kind of professionalism, and I’d figured out how to respond but not respond in the room. My acting training also helped.”
Casey MacPhail, a junior visual and media arts major, attended the screening on Friday. He said he was surprised by the student’s comments, but commended Sonya for including them in her film.
“Though he said a lot of problematic stuff, I think it was good on Sonya to include him, as I think she was aiming to expose the many different perspectives and perceptions of disability.” MacPhail said. “He said things that were incorrect and hurtful, but it helped to drive the point of her documentary home.”
Rio-Glick said she hopes to continue showing her film to audiences who can benefit from its message. She also wants people to begin to view people with disabilities as individuals who are valuable, strong, and capable of taking care of themselves.
“There’s a difference between asking someone how they’re doing and how they’re feeling,” she said. “Saying ‘how are you feeling’ puts the focus entirely on my body, and not on me as a whole.”