Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Beyond Disability: The Fe Fe Stories. DVD released October 26, 2004 by Beyondmedia Education. 26 minutes. Institutional price $100; Home video price $30.

Reviewed by Sarah Boslaugh, Washington University School of Medicine

The Empowered Fe Fes (the name Fe Fe is a play on the word "female") are a group of young women in Chicago who are living with disability. They were organized about six years ago by the disability-rights activist Susan Nussbaum, Transition Project Coordinator of Access Living in Chicago. The Fe Fes created the video Beyond Disability: The Fe Fe Stories in collaboration with Beyondmedia Education, a nonprofit organization that provides media training and access to underserved girls and women in the Chicago area.

Beyond Disability opens with a montage of photographs of the Fe Fes and their excerpted, voice-over comments:

A lot of people wonder what we're about.
You got that right girl!
Well, I mean, we're females.
We're definitely females, but that's obvious.
But we're disabled females, and that gets people kind of...
Some people are ignorant.

This style of presentation is maintained throughout the video, which aggressively cuts between individual Fe Fes introducing themselves and discussing aspects of their lives, on-the-street interviews conducted with passersby in Chicago's downtown Loop, title slides presenting facts about disability, and video clips and interviews from the 2004 Disability Pride Parade in Chicago. Credits do not appear until the end of the video, and no one is designated as the director. This produces the impression that the video was produced collectively, in keeping with its emphasis on presenting a collage of the Fe Fes and their experiences, set in the context of modern American life.

The most important fact about Beyond Disability is that throughout the film, the Fe Fes speak for themselves. As the popular slogan runs, this is not merely a video ABOUT them, it is BY them. When the Fe Fes speak, what do they have to say? Mainly that they have the same concerns as most teenage girls: school, friends, dating, planning their future. However, because of their disabilities, which include spina bifida, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and microcephaly, these ordinary desires present unique challenges. The Fe Fes tell about being shunned by their peers and misunderstood by their families, and experiencing discrimination in employment and education.

Beyond Disability is by no means a downbeat film, however: The Fe Fes are as forthright, self-confident and assertive a group of young women as you are likely to meet anywhere, and they look straight into the camera and articulate their ambitions and goals. Many want to attend college, and they have a variety of career ambitions: One wants to be a journalist, one a lawyer, one a teacher and basketball coach; several want to be computer programmers, and one wants to run her own a real estate company and build apartments for people with disabilities. The video creates a sense of their diversity and yet of the commonality of their concerns: Each wants to live a full human life, to continue their education, learn a profession, and have positive relations with other people.

The title cards present statistics that give a context to the individual Fe Fe stories, such as "more than half of the public feel awkward or embarrassed when encountering a disabled person", "30% of Americans would be concerned if a co-worker had a disability" and "three-fourths of the public say they feel pity when they see a disabled person." These statistics are presented without sourcing, although a 1991 Louis Harris Survey is cited in the credits. It is not clear if this is the source of all the statistics appearing in the film, and if it is, one wonders if the filmmakers could not have found a more recent source of information.

A second layer of context is provided by the interviews conducted by the Fe Fes in Chicago's downtown Loop: They put non-disabled passersby on the spot by asking them questions like "What does it mean to be disabled," "Do you think a person with a disability would be a good parent?" and "Do you find disabled women attractive?"

Beyond Disability won an Achievement Award and a Spirit Award at the 25th SuperFest, a disability film festival based in Berkeley, CA. Although it has been presented at film festivals and other public events, it will probably be shown most often in classrooms and other educational settings. An accompanying Teacher's Guide is available for $5 from Beyondmedia.


Beyondmedia Education website. http://www.beyondmedia.org.

Access Living website. http://www.accessliving.org.

Copyright (c) 2006 Sarah Boslaugh

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