Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Stobie, Jamie (Producer/director) & Cole, Janet (Executive producer). Freedom Machines. [Video]. 57 minutes, 2004. $195 if purchased by a college/university or $75 for rental. http://www.freedommachines.com/.

Reviewed by Beth Haller, Towson University

I am really glad I was born the time I was because I wouldn't have gotten the education I had. Geez, that's frightening. I can't imagine not being able to hear teachers talk about chemistry, physics, or English. I can't imagine someone limiting my abilities that far.       -- Susanna Sweeney-Martini

This quote begins "Freedom Machines," a documentary about the significant impact of technology in the lives of people with disabilities. But the documentary also covers the unfulfilled promise of technology for many. It does an excellent job of documenting what might be called the rampant "technology discrimination" that faces many people with disabilities daily.

The documentary illustrates how far technology has come in assisting people to live full lives within their community, but it also shows us how far we have to go as a society to get this crucial technology into the hands of all the people with disabilities who need it.

Through a series of profiles of people with disabilities using technology in their lives, the documentary shows daily living and educational pursuits enhanced by a variety of assistive technologies. Susanna Sweeney-Martini, a college student from Spokane, Washington, is the first person shown. Her power wheelchair and her voice-input computer help her pursue her goal to become an oceanographer or marine biologist. It also illustrates her leisure activities as she wheels up and down the soccer field as an umpire or has lunch with a girlfriend in a college café.

But the profiles of the young people are interspersed with interviews from their parents, who explain the constant challenges to get adequate technology for their children. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) are supposed to legally guarantee accommodation for people with disabilities, many continue to face inequities and lack of services and technology.

One of the more compelling profiles is of Latoya Nesmith, an African American, Albany, NY, high school student. She has a true passion for languages and wants to become a United Nations translator one day or write a Polish opera (because she thinks the Slovak languages get short shrift.) But she has to educate her teachers about the assistive technology that she needs to reach her educational goals, such as Intellikeys (which is a programmable enlarged keyboard that can be connected to any computer to assist someone with limited hand mobility). One can see the frustration she and her mother face as she diligently works -- many times without the added technology she needs to move forward.

A half a dozen other people with disabilities are featured with stories similar to Latoya's – people fighting to build careers or get educations without all the technological support they need. The documentary does give hope, however, because it illustrates that the needed technology does exist in most cases, from improvements in hearing aids to the IBOT, the wheelchair that climbs stairs.

The documentary premiered on PBS around the country as part of the "POV" documentary series in September 2004. And that is the perfect audience for it. For people from the Disability Studies world, the documentary tells a story we already know. However, the general public and our students unfamiliar with disability issues should all see this documentary to truly understand the "technology discrimination" that faces so many Americans with disabilities.