New Documentary Shines Light On Disability Rights Advocacy

When Allison Norlian was a little girl, she didn’t realize that her family was different. With a loving mom and a great big sister, Norlian felt lucky and surrounded by love. While that’s still true, as an adult she knows that the world doesn’t necessarily see her family the way she does.

The rude awakening to how society perceives those of us with disabilities came at a pretty young age. When Norlian was just in the second grade, she had a friend over for a playdate, just like any eight-year-old might. The difference was, though, that this friend had never encountered someone like Becky, Norlian’s older sister. “Something Becky did was ‘stim’ something people with autism do to decrease sensory overload,” she explained to me. When Becky came downstairs for dinner and was stimming, Norlian’s friend became frightened, started crying, and asked to go home. 

“My mom was a single mother, so I grew up helping to take care of my sister. I helped to feed and bathe Becky,” Norlian said. “I changed her diapers and cared for her needs. But aside from helping her, Becky was my friend. She loves music and dancing. As children, we would dance and play.” To her, this was the picture of normalcy. It was normal, actually, for her family — and why wouldn’t it be? Becky has certain needs, and her family gathers together to meet those needs. It’s simple.

The world, however, doesn’t view things as quite that simple. Despite the fact that one in four Americans lives with a disability, according to the CDC, the prevailing stereotypes and physical boundaries that people with disabilities face haven’t waned much yet. As Norlian grew up, this became increasingly clear to her, informing her choice to go into journalism. “I realized my family was unique,” she says, “and I would need to be a voice for my sister.”

A knack for performance led her into the world of TV journalism, which took her to various areas on the East Coast. She reported on a variety of topics, from storm damage to improper treatment of veterans at a VA hospital. While the whirlwind pace and diversity of stories kept her interested, she held onto a fervent desire to tell the stories dearest to her heart — to be the voice for people with disabilities. 

This desire has come to fruition in a number of ways. As a print journalist, Norlian now covers stories of women with disabilities and women from vulnerable communities for Forbes Women. She has written about more well-known women, such as actor Nicole Lynn-Evans of Modern Family, but also about regular folks like Trinity Jagdeo, who is creating comic books featuring superheroes with disabilities, inspired by her friend Alexus Dick. 

The second way is on the silver screen — a documentary film production company, BirdMine, that aims to uplift stories that may have otherwise gone unheard. The company has produced a number of short videos, like this one about Miss America’s “invisible” disability. BirdMine was co-founded and is co-run by Norlian and her friend and colleague Kody Liebowitz. Together, they have ambitious goals, and this fall they’re going to take things up a few notches. 

In September, Norlian and Liebowitz are headed to Mt. Kilimanjaro to film the ascent of disability activist Erika Bogan. The project is called ‘Meandering Scars,’ and it aims to increase awareness of the issue of suicidal ideation within the community of people with disabilities. Bogan is a disabled woman herself, having lost the capacity to walk in a domestic violence incident some years ago “Erika has suffered from depression since her accident and was even suicidal,” Norlian said. “She also has had several friends die by suicide.” By achieving this impressive feat, Erika wants to show that people with disabilities are just as capable as those without disabilities. 

Norlian and Liebowitz are along for the ride and are going to document every minute of the climb. After Kilimanjaro, in 2022, Bogan hopes to reach Machu Picchu in Peru. 

Of course, all of this is taking quite a lot of physical and emotional preparation. “Erika is preparing by competing in multiple Spartan races, eating clean, and building her upper body strength,” explained Norlian, going on to say that she and Kody are “building up our stamina and endurance by working out twice a day. I have been doing a lot of running.”

Norlian has been working her whole life to show everyone what she’s always known — that people with disabilities are not less than those of us without disabilities. Quite the opposite. They are people just like the rest of us, with drive, and motivation, and humor, and dreams. Their voices and stories matter and those are the voices and stories that Norlian and Liebowitz are passionate about uplifting. 

“We live in a society that is inaccessible in all forms — where people with disabilities have to constantly fight to have access and where they are so often left behind,” says Norlian. “Ultimately, my goal in life is to change the way the world views disability, and I hope this film contributes to that. I hope it educates the public on the topic of suicide in the disability community and creates some type of change where this is discussed, tracked, and taken seriously. I hope if someone with a mental health problem or suicide ideation watches the film, they feel less alone.”