On April 27, 2010, I had the honor of representing the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Such an event might, at first glance, seem like an unlikely place for the organization’s manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives to appear, yet it provided a unique opportunity to further SHRM’s role in advocating for the employment of people with disabilities.
Alexandra Codina, a young filmmaker from Miami, reached out to SHRM as a partner organization in The Campaign for Disability Employment, with the invitation. The Campaign is a collaborative effort to promote positive employment outcomes for people with disabilities by encouraging employers and others to recognize the value and talent they bring to the workplace.
Codina’s film, “Monica & David,” had been selected to take part in the Good Pitch, an event sponsored by the Sundance Documentary Institute and the Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation, to give filmmakers a platform to pitch their documentaries about social justice to “an exceptional audience drawn from across business, media and society.”
She was one of eight filmmakers selected, out of 230 applications, to pitch her project and its associated outreach campaign with the aim of accelerating the film’s impact and influence.
“Monica & David” is, according to Codina, primarily a love story between her cousin Monica and Monica’s husband, David. The film begins with footage of their wedding and follows the couple through their first year of marriage, ending as they celebrate their first anniversary.
What makes this particular love story unique is that Monica and David are adults living with Down syndrome. And, while they have a loving and respectful relationship that many married couples would envy, the pair desires a form of independence that might not be realistic for them. This, as it turns out, is the heart of the film: a yearning for freedom.
During a crucial scene, Monica and David meet with Best Buddies, an organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities gain meaningful employment. They are eager to find work and earn a paycheck.
Sadly, at the time of this writing, Monica and David remain unemployed.
Joining me around the table during the “pitch” for “Monica & David” were representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), The National Down Syndrome Society, The American Association of People with Disabilities, Best Buddies, The Arc (a human rights organization for people with intellectual disabilities), Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), The Fledgling Fund, The Loreen Arbus Foundation and others.
After hearing from Codina and Beckett Horowitz, the film’s community engagement coordinator, the audience viewed a two-minute trailer of the film. Then the Good Pitch’s moderator, Jess Search, asked those at the table, or anyone in the audience, how they could help the film reach a wider audience and, by doing so, help to change the world.
“Providing outreach for a documentary film would be a new venture for SHRM,” I said when it was my turn at the microphone, “but we are an association committed to providing HR professionals the tools and resources they need to grow their competencies and careers, and to advance the HR profession. Sometimes those resources are research reports and position papers. And sometimes, that resource is a documentary film.”
Other films being pitched included “Moving Windmills: The William Kamkwamba Story,” about a young man from Malawi who is bringing electricity to the small villages of his country by harnessing wind power; “An American Promise,” which follows two boys through 12 years of education and exposes many of the challenges faced by young black men in American schools; “The Anderson Monarchs,” about an exceptional soccer team for young black girls on the south side of Philadelphia; and “The Bully Project,” which explores the ramifications of school bullying on the bullies as well as their victims.
After attending the pitch, I traveled to the Village East Cinema to attend a screening of “Monica & David” and to participate in a post-screening panel on employing people with disabilities. During the discussion, an audience member asked how someone with an intellectual disability could navigate the biases of society while seeking employment. “It seems like an impossible task,” she said.
“Well, organizations have to do more than just ‘be open’ to diversity,” I responded. “An organization has to decide that they want to employ people from every conceivable background; they have to commit to that, and proactively make it happen.”
I pointed to research that indicates that hiring people with disabilities is good for business, and that monies spent on accommodations can be more than accounted for with savings gained by increased retention and productivity.
I noted that when a job applicant without a disability meets a hiring manager, the question is always, “what can you do for this organization? The same question needs to be asked of applicants with disabilities,” I continued. “Rather than seeing the person as a sum of their deficits, we need to be just as appreciative of their potential as we are with anyone else. Hiring managers and HR professionals that can make that mental shift are doing the right thing—and they make sound business decisions that will ultimately make their organizations more competitive.”
“Monica & David” will be broadcast throughout October 2010 on HBO and will be available on DVD in the spring of 2011. For more information on the film, go to http://www.monicaanddavid.com.
Eric C. Peterson is manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives for SHRM.