SXSW: Transforming Society’s Image of Disability

What started as a small music festival of 700 attendees in 1987 has turned into one of the most prominent gatherings in the nation today. At South by Southwest each March, emerging artists sign record deals, independent filmmakers get their big break, and startup tech companies go viral. The founders of the festival had a vision — to showcase local talent to the rest of the world — and it has since morphed into a massive meeting of leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators from multiple industries who are pushing limits, breaking down barriers, and changing how you and I go about our everyday lives.

Photo Credit: Cal Holman
Photo Credit: Cal Holman

So, why are we telling you about SXSW on Wheel:Life? Because this year, the disability community has not been left out of the lineup. From feature films to daily panel discussions, here’s what we’ve saved on our SXSW favorites list.

Disability-Themed Films


This year’s film festival includes two world premieres featuring protagonists with disabilities. Any One Of Us, a Red Bull Media House documentary, follows professional mountain biker Paul Basagoitia after sustaining a career-ending spinal cord injury. Watching his new world unfold, the audience accompanies him as he struggles through rehabilitation and grapples with accepting the reality of his situation. To help spectators better understand his journey, the director sprinkles in anecdotes from seasoned wheelchair users, many of which you will recognize if you’re a regular reader of Wheel:Life. Any One Of Us is a story of perseverance and hope as well as a testament to the importance of a reliable support network.

Photo Credit: Dylan Johnson
Photo Credit: Dylan Johnson

In the comedy/drama category, filmmaker Richard Wong presents Come As You Are, an adaptation of the 2011 Belgian film Hasta La Vista. Viewers go on a road trip to Montreal with three young men with disabilities who are on a quest to lose their innocence and claim their independence from their overprotective parents. Inspired by a true story, we can’t wait to see how their adventure plays out.

Let’s Talk About Accessibility and Inclusion

While the film and music festivals at SXSW may be known to the college crowd as the spring break party of the year, the conference portion attracts professionals of all ages. Keynote speakers are often distinguished journalists or Fortune 500 executives, but session presenters range from public officials to bloggers to founders of small businesses.        

Photo Credit: Ann Alva Wieding
Photo Credit: Ann Alva Wieding

Molly Kettle, Director of Zappos Adaptive, is one such presenter. Thanks to Zappos and a handful of other brands, finding fashionable clothing tailored to people with physical disabilities is slowly becoming less of a hassle. Kettle will moderate a panel at SXSW this year titled How Adaptive Design is Transforming BrandsShe is joined by amputee model Cacsmy Brutus, Ottobock’s Melissa Langley, and founder of Runway of Dreams Mindy Scheier. The industry still has a lot of work to do to meet our standards, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Photo Credit: Samantha Burkardt
Photo Credit: Samantha Burkardt

Google is also on the conference schedule. If you haven’t been paying attention, the global tech giant started letting its users chime in on the wheelchair-friendliness of businesses listed on their platform as of July 2017 and added a feature allowing users to find accessible public transit routes in the Maps app in select cities last year. A company technical program manager, Kiran Kaja, will present Accessibility: Designing for the Other Billion Users where he’ll discuss how Google Assistant is helping people with disabilities interact with technology and how other companies can design products with accessibility in mind.

Other panels that have piqued our interest touch on subjects such as diversity in media, accessible transportation, how prosthetics are changing adaptive sports, robotics and AI for accessibility, and tapping into the lifehacking skills of the disabled community for product design. Hip hop duo 4 Wheel City will also be making a cameo to share their story of living with paralysis as a result of gun violence.

Photo Credit: Dylan Johnson
Photo Credit: Dylan Johnson

Times Are Changing

When we hear about the concept of inclusion in the mainstream media, the disability community is often pushed into the background behind other marginalized groups or worse yet, completely ignored. But by the looks of this year’s lineup, SXSW seems to be leading the way toward a truly inclusive society. When accessibility and inclusion are on the agenda of a major, multi-industry conference, it’s a sign that the times are changing. Let’s do everything in our power to keep this discussion going.

Editor’s Note:  SXSW takes place from March 8 – 17, 2019, in Austin, Texas, and is held in multiple venues. If you’re planning on attending, check accessibility information of each location ahead of time. Otherwise, stay tuned into Wheel:Life regularly over the next few months for in-depth interviews from various SXSW presenters.


About the Author

Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.

Betsy has been writing for Wheel:Life since January of 2017 and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. She also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!


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