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This is me: Local film fest celebrates the accomplishments of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities

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The camera is focused on a young woman standing centerstage at the Garde Arts Center, and it captures behind her the empty but dramatically illuminated theater. The strains of one of the most powerful — and empowering — numbers on “The Greatest Showman’s” soundtrack begin.

As the lyrics are spelled out, literally, on screen, the woman uses American Sign Language to relay them. But she also conveys all the emotions in the song — the hurt, the pride, the love, the self-confidence.

Along with her evocative facial expressions and arm movements, she mouths the words to “This is Me”: “When the sharpest words wanna cut me down / I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown ‘em out / I am brave, I am bruised / I am who I’m meant to be, this is me … I’m not scared to be seen / I make no apologies, this is me.”

The young woman doing this signing is Claire Humphrey, and her filmed performance is part of The Arc Eastern Connecticut’s virtual Film Festival on Thursday.

The annual festival celebrates the accomplishments of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. It boasts films as well as interviews with Arc ECT’s leaders.

The nonprofit Arc ECT, which is based in Norwich, was founded in 1952 by families in eastern Connecticut who wanted opportunities for their kids who had intellectual or developmental disabilities. At that point, those children weren’t welcome in the public school system.

Now, Arc ECT serves between 800 and 1,000 people, providing advocacy, employment, life skills training, and more.

‘It’s saying: Be yourself’

When folks at The Arc ECT asked Claire Humphrey, 23, to do a piece for this film festival, they knew she had a lot of experience. She has created videos of her signing to various tunes that she posts on her own YouTube channel. There have been tunes from “Glee” and Disney, from Katy Perry and One Direction, and many more. 

She knows that, in performing American Sign Language to songs, she has to do more than just sign the words; she also has to convey the emotions. And she certainly does.

Discussing what she likes about the song “This is Me,” Claire says, “Well, it fits me … It’s saying: Be yourself.”

Claire, who lives in Colchester with parents Catherine and Paul Humphrey, started learning ASL when she was a toddler. Her mother recalls, “Due to her Down syndrome, her verbal language came later.”

Consequently, Claire worked with a speech therapist and learned sign language. Catherine says that sign language helped to “bridge the communication gap, and the frustration that comes along with not being able to express your needs — because she knew what she wanted, but she wasn’t necessarily able to verbalize it.”

Claire started with some simple sign language, so she could make known that, for instance, she wanted to eat or that she wanted more. Once she learned how to actually say a word, she would drop the sign.

She got back into sign language in grade school, though, joining a sign language club that one of her teachers ran. She has kept it up in various ways since. She taught herself online and then took courses at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford and at New London Adult Education.

“It was like, ‘OK, where do we go next with this?’ because she was really good,” Catherine says.

So Claire’s parents enrolled her in classes at Manchester Community College.

Not only did she learn, but she also taught. A third-grade boy who had Down syndrome and was nonverbal was having difficulty making friends because his classmates didn’t know how to communicate with him. So Claire (then in high school at Bacon Academy) went in once a week to teach ASL to his fellow students to help foster friendships.

She also was asked to become an interpreter for a boy she grew up with who had Down syndrome and was nonverbal. Through ASL, she helped him communicate with his peers and teachers.

‘You just walk out thinking, Wow’

The Arc ECT Film Festival, which runs 40 minutes or so, includes a movie about two brothers, one of whom has autism; and another asking people if there were one thing they could change about themselves, what would it be?

The other local piece is about how the cookies are made at The Arc’s bakery. That was shot by Brian Scott-Smith, whose has worked in TV, radio and online and for major news outlets like the BBC and PBS.

(Claire worked in The Arc ECT’s bakery and culinary program before COVID temporary shut it down.)

Discussing how the local film festival began, Kathleen Stauffer, who is CEO of The Arc ECT, said she was at The Arc’s national convention several years ago. She saw a presentation by a nonprofit organization named Sprout that creates films about people with IDD.

“It was clear to me that it was something important to bring back home,” Stauffer says.

The quality of the films was really good, and she loved the idea that from this collection of films, the folks at The Arc ECT could find ones that would resonate the most with the community here.

“Some of the movies make you laugh, some of the movies make you cry, some of the movies, you just walk out thinking, ‘Wow.’ I would see one of these little films, and I would think about it for a couple of days,” Stauffer says. “Even though I’m more informed about issues concerning people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I never fail to learn something from these films. It’s not just instructive — like I said, they make you laugh, they make you tear up. What happens is people go to one film festival because they want to support The Arc, and they come back because they want to see the films.”

The films expand viewers’ ideas of who people with IDD are, seeing the day-to-day challenges they face as well as their impressive talents, Stauffer notes.

“You don’t see this film festival and walk away thinking about issues about IDD like you did when you walked in,” she says.

As for Claire Humphrey’s video, also by Scott-Smith, Stauffer says, “I’m quite proud of our team because when I saw that film, I was just really impressed. That’s the best sign performance that I’ve ever seen in my life. I just think she’s really talented. And I’m really pleased to be able to share this event with the community because I think it’s going to change a lot of people’s minds about what people with IDD can do.”

The money raised through the film festival helps create and fund programming at The Arc ECT.

Since this year’s fest is virtual (and the movies are available for a week), Stauffer says that people will be watching it in their home and “I’m hoping it will become a family event even beyond what it is when people come to a theater. I think it’s going to be easier for families to watch as a family. I really see this as a perfect event for families and for schools.”

To watch

What: Arc ECT’s virtual Film Festival 

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $25

For tickets, visit: https://www.thearcect.org/film-tickets

For more info: (860) 889-4435, info@theartect.org">info@theartect.org

 

 

 

 

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