Rating: 3.5 / 5
When a film involves real people and suffering it can be a challenge for the viewer.
Such a film is Defiant Lives, subtitled ‘The rise and triumphs of the disability rights movement’.
The important word to focus on here is triumph—while this film has some very confronting scenes of the way people with disabilities were treated in the past, there is cause for celebration in how far disabled people have come in fighting for their rights.
Defiant Lives is a most apt title, because it’s their strength, determination and defiance of society’s exclusive attitudes to those who are different, which have changed the way able society regards disabled people.
While the fight goes on, a small mark of how far we have come is that when archival footage refers to ‘handicapped people’ instead of ‘disabled’ it sounds shocking to our 21st century ears.
In Defiant Lives director Sarah Barton covers an ambitious sweep, with detailed examination of how the disability action movement developed in Australia, the US and the UK.
Early on, we meet some severely disabled people who struggle to vocalise but are highly educated and communicate their message clearly, sometimes with a little help from an able-bodied friend.
Barton pulls no punches, and there are graphic tales and scenes of the treatment of disabled people in institutions. The thought occurs that we treat our beloved animals better than how some of these people were treated. Families were not encouraged to have contact—once a disabled child had been placed in an institution, families were advised to forget them and get on with life.
Thankfully, our attitudes today have moved on, and generally we are kinder and far more accepting and supportive of disability, but as Defiant Lives shows us, there is still a way to go.
Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme is examined, and regarded as a trailblazing initiative, but with shortcomings that need to be addressed.
There are scenes of a Melbourne wheelchair user woman chaining herself to a tram that had steps she couldn’t access, and many similar protests. It was this kind of protest that led to Australian cities developing trams, trains and buses that were designed so people of all abilities can have independence and the right to public transport.
Defiant Lives is a documentary full of energy and purpose, proving that disabled people have shown incredible determination in changing the way society regards them.
The documentary reframes disability as a human rights issue, rather than showing disabled people as objects of pity, a deliberate intent by director Barton.
“We all know about the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, and the disability rights movement should really sit alongside them in our minds and our history books,” Barton says.
Disability rights campaigner and singer Johnny Crescendo sums up in song the message of this fine documentary.
“I don’t want your sorrow, I don’t want your fears—I want choices and rights in our lives.”
Highlight: the fighting spirit and determination of disabled people
Red flag: confronting scenes of how disabled people were treated