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Film 'Music Within' Tells Tale of Disabled Activists


A film called Music Within tells the story of a hearing-impaired man who helped bring about legal protections for the disabled. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with director Steven Sawalich about the movie and its message.

Filmmaker Steven Sawalich is well-acquainted with hearing impairments. His step-father, Bill Austin, is one of the world's largest manufacturers of customized hearing aids. Through a charity called the Starkey Hearing Foundation, Austin has donated thousands of custom-fitted hearing aids to children around the world, and Sawalich has taken part in 50 charitable missions to do the fittings.

Through this work with the hearing-impaired, the filmmaker met a man named Richard Pimentel, who suffered hearing loss as a soldier during the Vietnam War and became an activist for the disabled. His efforts and those of people like him led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark law that provided protections for the disabled.

Sawalich says it led to many accommodations in public facilities.

"Even for myself, you tend to take things for granted or not know what Richard helped create, which is the indentations in the curbs in the sidewalk, as well as wider toilet stalls, the motion-detecting doors for when you walk into the grocery store and the door slides open for you," said Steven Sawalich. "And this is what the Americans With Disabilities Act helped create."

The film Music Within stars Ron Livingston and Melissa George, and tells the story of Pimentel's struggle to finish college and get a job. A gifted public speaker, he inspired others with a story.

Along the way, he made friends with a man in a wheelchair who is disabled by cerebral palsy. The character, named Art, is played by actor Michael Sheen. The audience gets a first-hand view of life with a disability. Pimentel had trouble distinguishing sounds, and was plagued with a constant ringing called tinnitus, as his doctor explained.

DOCTOR: "You've got tinnitus. It's ringing in the ears."

SAWALICH: "In the film, we actually portray a few scenes where you actually hear what Richard hears himself without the hearing aids. We were able to take his audiogram and put it in our mixing board and take out the frequencies he couldn't hear and bring down the ones he could, and therefore it gives a pretty accurate portrayal of what he would hear in his life, as well as the tinnitus."

At the time, the disabled were routinely denied employment and often faced rude comments.

The city of Portland, Oregon, where Pimentel lived, was one several U.S. cities with so-called "ugly laws," which allowed restaurants or other businesses to refuse admittance to people they deemed unsightly. In one scene, Pimentel and his wheelchair-bound friend were refused service at a restaurant.

WAITRESS: "I think you two need to leave. You're making the other customers very uncomfortable."

The waitress goes on to tell Pimentel's friend that his appearance disgusts here.

Sawalich says this really happened when the two went out for pancakes to celebrate Art's birthday.

"The film is a representation of how Richard saw the world, so there are some things that are slightly over-exaggerated, but the scene with the pancake waitress who tells Art that he's the most disgusting person she's ever seen actually happened," he said.

Through persistence and perseverance, Pimentel and other activists were able to change the law.

The results were dramatic. T. J. Hill of the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles says the Americans with Disabilities Act changed the landscape of the country.

"It opened up access to public transportation, which was very, very significant for people with disabilities, and it also allowed access to public accommodations," said T. J. Hill. "And those are our schools, our universities, our hospitals, all our public buildings, courthouses and police stations."

Just as important, it offered protections for the disabled in the workplace.

Steven Sawalich says this is not a "message" film, but is still a film with a message.

"Our tag line is 'any one person can change the world,' and I think that's true, given enough determination and will, I think you can accomplish whatever you set [out] to accomplish," said Sawalich.

He says the film is a gripping drama, which has added impact because its story is not fiction, but really happened.