June 15, 2024

Nefertiti Matos is one of three blind New Yorkers on a quest for love in Blind Date.


“We need to be allowed to run into things and fall if we have to. It teaches us, and it teaches society as well.”

So says Nefertiti Matos in “Blind Date,” a documentary by a fi lmmaker from Houston that follows three blind New Yorkers as they face challenges the digital age brings in their search for love. Her words encapsulate the purpose behind the ReelAbilities Houston Film & Arts Festival, a citywide event that uses the arts to eliminate the stigma associated with disabilities by celebrating those who have them.

Call it the anti-pity party

Returning Monday, Feb. 22, for its sixth year in Houston, the five-day ReelAbilities festival offers 17 shorts and feature-length films, including “Blind Date.” After the screenings, audiences can talk with filmmakers, parents, professionals and people with disabilities.

Subjects include a swim team composed of teens with autism; the Texas School for the Deaf Rangers, the only high school football team for students with hearing impairments; and a program that allows prison inmates to care for and train puppies as service dogs for injured veterans.

It is bookended on other days by an art exhibit, speaker series, live music jam session, school tours and seminars at local offices.

“With Houston being such a diverse community, we’re excited to put people living with disabilities at the forefront of the conversation with the hopes that this festival will educate others about the country’s largest minority,” festival chair Vikki Evans says.

This year’s ReelAbilities is a homecoming of sorts for Nicole Ellis, who made 2015’s “Blind Date” with fellow Columbia University alumna Maya Albanese. Ellis, an on-camera reporter and fi lmmaker for the Washington Post’s “Inspired Life,” was born in Houston and raised in the Third Ward.

“I learn so much,” Ellis, 30, says of the festival. “It’s charming and informative.” Ellis’ interest in how those with disabilities navigate their world took root during a study-abroad program in South Africa more than a decade ago. Her mentor was a quadriplegic former Member of Parliament, which calls for 2 percent of its governing body to have a disability.

Seeing “how much he was capable of was a turning point for me,” Ellis recalls. “I pivoted to explore what it was like to have a disability and be in Parliament,” whose halls were erected long before the ideas of “inclusion” and “accessibility” — before anyone considered the need for elevators or forgoing the traditional privacy of proceedings by allowing an interpreter onto the floor for a deaf lawmaker.

The experience stuck with Ellis. From then on, she was conscious of “not laying it on thick with empathy because I knew better.” “Blind Date” features capable, bright people. Their personalities and how they lost their sight vary: The quietly confident Matos had a brain tumour on her optic nerve at age 3½; ladies’ man Anthony Butler was blinded six years ago in a shooting; and a genetic disorder claimed the sight of Gus Chalkias, a technology-accessibility expert, in his late 20s.

“All people with disabilities are under considered and undersexualized,” Chalkias says in the film. “… Once that person holds that cane or holds that guide dog, they’re automatically
identifi ed as just that one thing, and that’s blind.”

According to the documentary, 1 in 5 Americans has used online dating, but the 7 million Americans with vision loss have difficulty accessing this technology. Online dating sites expect clients to choose people they fi nd attractive based on photographs, but the only information blind users get via their screen readers is a user name, age and where the potential date is from. “I don’t know if I chose Sasquatch right now,” laughs Matos, who calls her OKCupid experience “another situation where I’ll have to find a workaround or to forget all about because it’s just not accessible to me.”

Butler seeks a silver lining in working “twice as hard,” and not only in dating. “(Losing my sight) was a test. What are you going to do with your life?”

Ellis says she hopes “Blind Date” reminds viewers of the privilege that accessibility affords them.

“The things getting in their way are objects,” not blindness, she says. “We want to expose audiences to obstacles that get in the way of what Anthony, Gus and Nefertiti want to accomplish, and dating is a huge part of that.” Since “Blind Date” was released, Ellis says, a few accessibility improvements have come about, namely on social media platforms, but not many.

Still, she’s hopeful that the more blindness is demystified, the “more progress will be made.”

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