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Seeing with new eyes

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Summer


There was a moment, probably sometime in the mid-1980s, when my awareness of the politics of disability eclipsed my awareness of what it means to be disabled. The latter was never that developed, since I grew up without disability and had no close friends or relations who were disabled. But although my knowledge was second- or third-hand, I wasn’t indifferent. Like many others, I had been raised to appreciate the hardships and rights of disabled people, whom we knew then as “handicapped.” (The H-word had not yet been retired as politically incorrect.)

At a certain point though, I now realize, I must have lost a measure of empathy. This could have been the result of my own self-absorption or a reaction to the stridency of a particularly militant point of view I encountered somewhere; I don’t recall. All I know is that somewhere between my first job and third child, a thought nested in my consciousness that said, “Sure that’s hard, but life is tough all over.”

Gretchen Berland’s film Rolling changed all this.

Rolling, the subject of Cathy Shufro’s article (“Life on Wheels”), is powerful in the simplicity of its basic premise: Berland equipped three disabled people in Los Angeles with digital video cameras and asked them to record the events of their daily lives. The intimate, 70-minute film that resulted shows what it is like to depend on a wheelchair, and does so in a way that an objective, third-person documentary likely could not have. For me, the realization that life just isn’t as hard for most of us came when one of the three protagonists, Vicki Elman, was obliged to roll herself off the sidewalk and into city traffic in order to get around a carelessly placed newspaper box. The obstacle would have been insignificant to another pedestrian, but Elman’s solution put her life at risk. My new attitude was reinforced later in the film when Elman, who has multiple sclerosis, was stranded outside her home, alone as the sun went down, hours after a van driver, citing company rules, had refused to wheel her inside.

Rolling changed how I feel, but this was not the director’s first goal. Berland, an assistant professor of medicine at Yale who began the project as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at UCLA, says her initial purpose in making the film was to explore a rather unconventional research tool—the documentary film—and to produce new knowledge about disability in the process. “You can use the visual medium to explore aspects of a patient’s experience that we might not otherwise be able to capture using any other kind of data collection tool,” says Berland, who was a producer for NOVA and NewsHour before studying medicine. Her colleague Harlan Krumholz, M.D., calls the film a much-needed complement to huge analytical studies of clinical data that reveal patterns on a large scale but contribute little to doctors’ understanding of “the tapestry of what makes up [patients’] lives.”

If you get the chance to see Rolling, jump on it. One short clip may be viewed on our website,, and the film is being screened at festivals. In an era when politics have become increasingly polarized and we risk categorizing people as either “us” or “them,” Rolling reminds us in a straightforward and honest way of the common ground we all share as human beings. “There but for the grace …"

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