‘What are you looking at?” is a variation of the in-your-face phrase “you lookin’ at me?” made famous by Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle character in the film “Taxi Driver.” There’s a certain amount of attitude to it, or should we say, “attytood?”
For the 450 persons with disabilities and their families that Enable Inc., a Princeton non-profit serves through in-home services and supports, group homes, day programs, respite care, and other options, the phrase has another kind of resonance. It’s more like, “What are you looking at? Yes, I am a little different from you, but instead of staring, why not get to know me?”
That is the back story of how a very special film series, presented by Enable, was born. “What Are You Looking At?” runs Wednesday, February 23, through Tuesday, May 17, at Princeton Public Library and features inspiring movies that represent Enable’s mission of enabling individuals with disabilities to live full and independent lives within the community.
The screenings are free and open to the public, and each film will be followed by a panel discussion and refreshments. “Enable is embarking on this to highlight the gifts, and talents that people with disabilities have,” says Sharon Copeland, Enable’s executive director. “Our focus is on helping people to live in the community. Even though we run group homes and help people to live in their own apartments, they are often isolated. The general public and neighbors may or may not feel comfortable interacting with them, and people with disabilities might not have the skills to interact with their neighbors and cultivate the same social networks that other people have.
“This series is intended to (showcase) people with disabilities and to help answer any questions the general public might have,” she says. “At Enable, we believe strongly that people with disabilities are people with skills, gifts, and interests just like anyone else, and should be seen for these instead of seen for a disability they may have.”
The idea for the series was sparked by Tracey Costanzo, development officer at Enable, who worked with the group’s community engagement coordinator Kirsten Yard to preview a plethora of movies and boil down the choices to four excellent films. Each offers a new perspective on life through the talents, accomplishments, and value of people with disabilities.
Enable broached the idea to Princeton Public Library and Janie Hermann, public programming librarian, thought it was a terrific opportunity. “The library is excited to partner for the first time with Enable to bring this educational film series to area residents,” Hermann says.
The 2001 film “I Am Sam,” will be shown on Wednesday, February 23. It stars Sean Penn as a man with developmental disabilities, fighting to get custody of his daughter, played by a young Dakota Fanning. He is doing fine until she reaches age seven, when social services insists he isn’t capable of raising her anymore. Here’s a bonus for music fans: since Sam absolutely loves the Beatles, this movie also has a cool soundtrack chock full of Lennon/McCartney tunes, covered by the likes of Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Eddie Vedder, and Sheryl Crow.
The 2007 documentary “Praying with Lior,” which screens on Wednesday, March 23, gives a glimpse into the life of Lior Leibling, a boy with Down syndrome, as he asserts his devotion to his faith and approaches his Bar Mitzvah. Although Lior is a great friend, son, and community member, he can be a challenge. However, some in his circle believe he is a spiritual genius and is especially close to God.
“Autism: The Musical” screens Thursday, April 21. Originally shown in 2007 on HBO, and starring five children with autism spectrum disorders, “Autism: The Musical” captures the struggles and triumphs of its “stars” and their family lives. It also shows how the arts provide a comfort zone for them to explore their creative sides. For the post-film discussion the series organizers are particularly delighted to have Elaine Hall, founder of the Miracle Project, a theater and film arts program for children with special needs, participate via remote from the West Coast.
“We’re showing this film in April, since April is Autism Awareness Month and hoping that the screening will put this particular disability out there in the public view,” Copeland says.
“Emmanuel’s Gift” was to be the first film in the series, but was snowed out and has been re-scheduled for Tuesday, May 17. The 2005 documentary chronicles the story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a young man from Ghana, born with a severely disfigured leg, whose goal is to change the fate of the more than 2 million people with disabilities in that country. Most people born with disabilities in Ghana are abandoned or hidden from society, even poisoned by their families. Emmanuel travels across country on a bicycle, with a prosthetic leg for all to see, challenging this rejecting mindset.
“I started previewing films about a year ago and was surprised because the quality of all the films is really excellent,” says Costanzo. “For now, screening four films is manageable, but we’ll see how it goes and then hopefully do it again next year.”
Costanzo grew up in Troy, NY, the daughter of a factory worker and a homemaker, who was taught early on to “enjoy the simple things in life,” she says. She attended SUNY at Oswego, where she met her husband of 25 years, John Costanzo. She graduated with a bachelor’s in economics from SUNY in 1983, and went on to the University of Rochester’s Simon School, receiving an MBA with a concentration in marketing in 1985. She worked in the corporate world for about 15 years, in marketing positions until 1999, when her husband’s work took him to London. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says, “and gave me time to consider ‘what next?’”
Before moving to London, Costanzo had volunteered as a mentor for some young adults at the Somerset Home for Temporarily Displaced Children in Somerset. “I had great respect for the organization but realized that with my easy home life, I didn’t know how to help these kids,” she says. “When I got back from London, I was unemployed, so I called and volunteered to help with planning for the Somerset Home’s gala. I figured if I couldn’t help with direct support, maybe I could use my business skills in the nonprofit world.” Her volunteer involvement led to a paid position as the organization’s communications manager.
Even as an administrative staff member, Costanzo interacted with the children, however, telling their stories as part of her job. It was a life-transforming experience, she says. “I will never forget those stories.”
The couple moved to Lambertville in 2004, when John took a position as a director at Dow Jones, managing software developers. Through friends, Costanzo learned about the Hunterdon Land Trust, which was looking to hire a part-time financial development person. “I consider myself somewhat environmentally minded,” she says. “It’s another terrific organization, and I learned a lot. Although I have left both organizations, I continue to financially support both Somerset Home and Hunterdon Land Trust. I joke that I have to stop changing jobs because it’s getting too expensive for me.”
When she began to think about returning to a non-profit in the social services, she saw the job listing at Enable, but was unsure if she would be comfortable working with people with disabilities. “My husband encouraged me, and said that I would love it,” Costanzo says. “I am grateful for the opportunity to get to know some of our consumers and to understand that, like the troubled teenagers served by Somerset Home, these people aren’t that different from me. We all want, and deserve, the same things.
“One of the challenges Enable faces is people not knowing who we are or what we do,” she continues. “When I was at the Land Trust, we started a ‘land and food’ film series to get recognition for the organization. I thought a film series about people with disabilities would serve the same purpose for Enable.
“We hope that by showing the films about the lives of people with disabilities, it will help the general public have a better comfort level with our community members with disabilities,” Costanzo says. “We also want to let people know that Enable has services to help people with all of these issues.”
“What Are You Looking At?,” Princeton Public Library community room, 65 Witherspoon Street. “I Am Sam,” Wednesday, February 23, 6:30 p.m.; “Praying With Lior,” Wednesday, March 23, 6:30 p.m.; “Autism: The Musical,” Thursday, April 21, 6:30 p.m.; and “Emmanuel’s Gift,” Wednesday, May 17, 6:30 p.m. Post-film discussion. Free. For more information on Enable visit www.enablenj.org or call 609-987-5003, extension 124. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.