“‘Advocacy Club’ first screening a stepping stone to international exposure”
By Alex Karn
The afternoon of July 9th, 2022 was a reunion of sorts for the group gathered in JAYU Festival Inc.’s 401 Richmond Street West Toronto screening room. Most hadn’t seen each other in the flesh since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but in fact this occasion was five years in the making.
Subjects, friends, and loved ones, along with the creative team of Michael McNeely’s “Advocacy Club” film, all came together to watch his full-length documentary for the very first time.
“Advocacy Club” shares the stories and experiences of several members of the Canadian Helen Keller Centre’s (CHKC’s) monthly Advocacy Club. The film highlights their struggles, successes, and the causes that each is fighting for to better their lives.
When asked to describe the Club, CHKC Consumer Programs Manager Melanie Gauthier explains, “Advocacy Club is a monthly program for individuals who are Deaf-Blind to gather and share similar challenges with their peers. It provides them an opportunity to promote and protect their rights, find solutions and feel empowered with the facilitator’s guidance.”
The group got its start on February 5th, 2016, and has continued to meet monthly ever since. Today, Advocacy Club welcomes Deaf-Blind members from across Ontario to connect and participate in this safe space both in-person at 210 Empress Avenue in Toronto and by calling in online.
For Deaf-Blind film-maker Michael McNeely, the experience of Advocacy Club was transformative. “Facilitating Advocacy Club was my first meaningful job in Toronto,” he says. “It was a chance to learn about my community and use my experiences and resources with advocacy. I was scared of the future being Deaf-Blind, but now I’m more at ease. I was even motivated to go to law school.”
Michael has since graduated law school, and earned renown as a family law and human rights lawyer before accepting a position with Canada’s Department of Justice. He never lost his passion for story-telling and film-making though, and while he worked hard to build his law portfolio, in his free time he was committed to creating this documentary. With the completion of this project, Michael is recognized as the first ever Deaf-Blind Director and Film-maker of a feature-length film.
“I haven’t heard of a feature length documentary of Deaf-Blind folks. I don’t think many understand the world of Deaf-Blindness – many assume the worst,” Michael responds when asked why directing “Advocacy Club” was so important to him. “I just want more representation of our way of life. I want people to take away from this film that there is more than one way of having a good life. And that we need to listen to people with disabilities.”
He goes on to explain that in making the film, ensuring that Deaf-Blind people would be able to experience it was critical to him and his team. “There are many accessibility features built into Advocacy Club,” he says. “Including 30-second intermissions which can be paused if longer breaks are required. This is so intervenors can catch up with any description. We have subtitles and full visual description as well. We will also use sensory screenings, and we are working on a website with more resources for the film.”
To this end, it was always Michael’s plan to invite the CHKC group participants to “Advocacy Club”’s first screening. “I can’t have the film without them. They deserve an opportunity at a first look. Some have been waiting 5 years for this opportunity. They may not get other chances at bigger venues due to inaccessibility.” He was ecstatic that one such participant, Shari Bancarz, was able to attend.
A Deaf-Blind advocate herself, Shari was delighted to watch the documentary and shared her thoughts immediately after the screening. “That entire film is so important for everybody to have a better understanding about Deaf-Blind people. As a Deaf person whose vision has gotten worse and worse over time, I’ve had to learn how to cope and how to keep going.”
“I don’t think that people should feel bad for people who are blind,” she adds. “I never dreamed of the time that I would become blind, but I’ve noticed the gradual changes and I’ve started to understand now the frustrations that Deaf-Blind people have experienced in my own day-to-day life… I think too having something once a year to kind of try to expose people to the Deaf-Blind community and our experiences isn’t enough. I think we need more. It needs to be more international, wider.”
Shari is referring to the annual awareness-building events CHKC hosts in Toronto every June to bring more focus to the lives and rights of Deaf-Blind people. Although those events usually draw in hundreds of folks from the local region, next summer the world-wide Deaf-Blind community will be front and center at the Deaf-Blind International World Conference in Ottawa.
In fact, the Conference has already arranged to screen the “Advocacy Club” film on the evening of Wednesday, July 26th, 2023.
“Advocacy Club” will be widely distributed to film festivals, service provider conferences, primary and secondary schools, and more. Learn more about the film at www.advocacyclubfilm.com.