When Gretchen K. Berland, M.D., embarked on a research project in 2001 aimed at improving health care for the disabled, she took an unusual approach: she gave video cameras to three people in wheelchairs and asked them to record their lives.

Berland, an assistant professor of medicine who had worked as a producer for public television before medical school, hoped to make an intimate, first-person film that would give physicians and policymakers a fresh perspective on the day-in, day-out realities of coping with life in a wheelchair. The film that resulted, titled Rolling, won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Lake Placid Film Festival.

Still, one of Berland’s mentors, Harlan M. Krumholz, M.D., director of the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program at Yale, wondered whether Berland’s maverick style might deny her work the academic recognition he thought it deserved.

He needn’t have worried. Berland’s work was validated in a big way last fall, when she won one of the John D. and Catherine T.MacArthur Foundation’s famed “genius” grants.

“It’s very empowering to know an organization like MacArthur believes in your work,” says Berland, an assistant professor of medicine who serves on the core faculty of the Clinical Scholars Program.

Berland says that her film adds new perspective to the doctor-patient relationship, which she believes is undermined by the typical 15-minute office visit. The subjects of Rolling are “real and dimensional,” she says, and we see their disability in the context of their whole lives.

Berland says she receives 100 inquiries about Rolling every week, and she has answered more than 7,000 requests for videotapes from throughout the world.

She used to charge $15 for tapes to cover her costs, but since winning the $500,000, no-strings-attached MacArthur, she has been distributing copies for free.

Berland is grateful for the openminded encouragement she has received at Yale.“My work is very nontraditional,” she says, “and they knew that when I came here. Not many other universities would have supported that.”