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Anna Pakman Calls Out the Absurdity of Medical Ableism in Comedic Short Film, “Wheelchair Money”

Anna Pakman Calls Out the Absurdity of Medical Ableism in Comedic Short Film, “Wheelchair Money”

Any wheelchair user knows it’s quite the odyssey to get new equipment. Anna Pakman decided to capture this saga in her latest entry for the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, in which participants are tasked to make a five-minute short film within five days. Each team must have at least one participant with a disability. Anna has cerebral palsy, but the diversity of her crew doesn’t stop there. “You must be the change you want to see in the industry. All of my actors in this year’s film are also people of various disabilities,” she explains. “It was also important to me to have a mix of disabled and non-disabled participants behind the scenes on our crew.”

Anna had the chance to collaborate with a veteran cinematographer, Larry Langton. “He’s an Emmy-winning filmmaker who has made amazing commercials for large brands that are seen nationally. The quality of work is just stunning. We also had a couple of guys on the team who do work for Netflix. It was very special to work with them, both because of the professionalism that they brought to the technical side of things, but also to be able to introduce them to our world, to be able to show them that the cast and crew members with disabilities are not going to slow down the process and actually are going to be very additive to the work. We can do the 15-hour shoot days. We have the ability. We have the talent. We just don’t always get that opportunity. Now, we have these wonderful allies who can go out into the film world and help educate other people.”

Anna’s buddy comedy, Wheelchair Money, chronicles the determination of one man (Johnny, played by Jessie Chin) to self-fund a custom power wheelchair in the wake of his insurance company’s denial. “Medical ableism is so prevalent in society and the number of hoops that we have to jump through as disabled people to get our basic needs met is just ridiculous. In the opening scene, Johnny is on the phone with this insurance agent and he’s being denied a new power wheelchair that he desperately needs because his chair that he has now is breaking down. He’s being denied for this ludicrous reason, which is that he doesn’t meet the minimum weight requirement for this particular wheelchair.” Anna has experienced this asinine rationale herself. “That’s actually based on a true story. The scooter you see in the film is a chair I had to pay for that out of pocket because my health insurance company said that I didn’t weigh enough for the model that I needed, despite all of the letters from my doctor and all of the therapists and rehab specialists certifying it was what I needed.  The health insurance company just did not care about any of that. It was one of those outrageous bureaucratic moments because a lot of times, these rules that they use don’t meet reality. They don’t meet the needs of the actual people on the ground who are going through the ringer.” 

Healthcare is a rocky American landscape. Those with disabilities are often at the mercy of their employer, but they are not alone. “Almost everyone I know has had some kind of negative run-in with a health insurance company denying a claim that probably should not have been denied. I think it’s a statement on healthcare in general in this country just not being humanistic, not being person friendly. We don’t have universal healthcare and you have to have a job to have insurance or you have to be on government care and then you can’t have over a certain amount of assets. It’s so limiting. You’re tied to a job because that’s your health insurance provider, too. There’s just so much more riding on things.” 

However, such dire circumstances are often paradoxically rife with humor. “When these things happen, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, and I choose to laugh. But watching me taking money from my bank account and buying a scooter out of pocket is kind of sad and not funny, so I decided that this character would have to sell something that he really cares about to be able to afford this wheelchair, which costs as much as a car!” Johnny’s prized possession exemplifies the cheerful goofiness Anna was after. “He decides to sell his Princess Diana Beanie Baby. I thought it would be so ridiculous for this good-looking, cool guy to be so attached to this childhood toy. The whole plot moves forward with him going on this quest across New York City to be able to sell it, highlighting some of the other challenges that we face as people with disabilities and particularly as wheelchair users.”

Johnny faces countless trials and tribulations along the way, from roundabout detours to unreliable and urine-filled subway elevators, only to try in vain to hail an elusive cab, whose drivers are usually beyond reluctant to shuttle prospective customers with mobility devices. During filming, Anna herself was refused a taxi, an all too common occurrence despite a hefty $250 city fine for this kind of discrimination.. “I informed him that I was recording on my phone. He just waved me off and drove away. The idea that someone would do that without caring when they 100% know that it’s being documented on camera boggles my mind.”

Johnny’s friendship with Whitney (Pam Schuller) carries him through the hardships. Whitney is Johnny’s roommate who happens to have Tourette syndrome. Disabled shenanigans frequently ensue.  “They’re opposites in that he’s very put together. He’s very responsible. He has a job. He’s trying to do things by the book. On the other hand, she’s a free spirit who wants to be a professional TikToker even though she only has 17 followers. Whitney is someone who’s trying to find her footing. She finds it through their relationship and being able to be there for him because the one thing that she’s able to be good at is being a good friend. She joins him on this adventure and we also see her being really affected by it. If she were by herself, she could have gone down the stairs to the subway or gotten that cab. At points, she’s almost more offended by the barriers than he is. That’s something that’s also been part of my life. It’s one thing when this happens to me and I’m by myself and I know how to deal with it, but it’s a new level when it affects other people in my life. I think we did a really good job of exploring these really rich themes of disabled friendship and friendship in general, especially in five minutes. It’s not just about disability. Whitney wants Johnny to sell this Beanie Baby, regardless of the chair, because it was a gift from an ex-girlfriend that she hates. She wants him to get over this relationship.” Anna laughs, “We’ve all been there.”

The film is a pastiche of disabled experiences and how ableism mottles every day, but it simultaneously encompasses the universality of connection, mutual growth, and resilience. Anna beams with pride and optimism. “We put together this incredible, beautiful product that I think will generate much-needed awareness of the issues that people with disabilities face. I want to give disabled people representation, but also have non-disabled people who will watch this and find things to relate to, which is something that I really strive for in all my films.  Because at the end of the day, we win when we have more empathy in the world and we can better relate to each other.” Our commonalities will always outweigh our differences.

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Anna Pakman Calls Out the Absurdity of Medical Ableism in Comedic Short Film, “Wheelchair Money.” Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anna Pakman.

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