The Professor Is In: James Lawler
Seidenberg Professor James Lawler discusses the genesis of the Celebration of Individuals with Disabilities in Film, and the importance of service.
Seidenberg Disability Studies and Information Technology Professor James Lawler, DPS, has long been an impactful member of the Pace Community. In addition to helping students succeed in the classroom and conducting original research, Lawler has always viewed service for others as paramount to his role. For the past seven years, Lawler has served as the director of the ever-growing Film and Music Spectacular, previously known as the Celebration of Individuals with Disabilities in Film.
The genesis of the festival began with a CIS 102W course Lawler began teaching in 2002. He engaged with AHRC NYC, a non-profit dedicated to supporting people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, as a fundamental component of the course.
“This is a course I began for undergraduate students to engage with people with developmental and intellectual disabilities (IDD),” says Lawler. “Because I’m in the Seidenberg school, we engaged these students in developing projects involving technology; such as virtual reality, and the web. Students are essentially mentors to individuals with disabilities—each student is partnered with a particular person with a developmental or intellectual disability for the duration of the semester to do that particular project.”
Initially, the class enabled Seidenberg students help individuals with disabilities to present themselves and their creative skills through website design, virtual reality systems, and more. From there, momentum was established to take the collaboration with AHRC even further.
“The Disability Film Festivals, I began in 2013 as an adjunct to the course,” says Lawler. “As part of the course, my students also do films. So if students are doing websites, they might also have films about the particular people, and about their products if they’re artists, on the actual sites.”
The first film festival, in 2013, included films from students. As the initiative has expanded, Lawler has partnered with Sprout, a non-profit that helps people developmental disabilities grow through challenging and creative experiences. Over the past several years, the films have come in conjunction with Sprout—the organization has an ongoing successful initiative to create films in which all of the major acting roles feature people with developmental disabilities.
The success of the festival has been quite considerable, and since its inception, has attracted hundreds of attendees per year. Over the years, the festival has evolved to also feature music performances.
“The Disability Film Festivals include musical performances of high quality by bands of people with disabilities known in city venues, such as Seidenberg alumna Tabi Haly,” says Lawler. “I have presented several of the films subsequently at academic conferences and at practitioner symposiums nationally, receiving Best Presentation Awards, to share the results of the Festivals on students and on those with disabilities in society.”
Undoubtedly, the Festivals have become an annual source of pride for both Lawler and the University. Lawler views the event, and the course it stems from, as an essential service to the community.
“We need a revival of service,” Lawler says, echoing the sentiments of one of his primary role models, the educator and public intellectual Cornel West. “This is my whole passion. And what I’m trying to do with students, is to help them be more open with this population and to have compassion for this population, compassion for others.”
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