By Connor Carynski
Claiming people with disabilities are cast only as side characters, flat-out excluded or entirely misrepresented in the media, filmmaker and community worker Justin Cooper is working to make public the realities of those with disabilities through a film about his life as a wheelchair user.
“There are not that many people like me that are seen in the media and when we are, we are often perceived as nothing but freaks or leaches,” said Cooper, who is in a wheelchair because of Becker Muscular Dystrophy. “I want to showcase that, yes, there are disabled people out here in the media that want to be properly represented.”
For the past five years, the 34-year-old Lincoln Park resident has been independently compiling and editing footage of his daily life into a documentary titled, “The Wheelchair Chronicles.” The film focuses on Cooper’s struggles with accessibility in Chicago, his coming to terms with his disability as a teenager and how being in a wheelchair affects his daily life. Cooper said with the film he wants to show people the realities of disabilities in a way that is not often portrayed in movies or television shows. Additionally, for the last five years Cooper has been writing a blog about the film to keep his fans and relatives up to speed on the progress of his project.
Though the film was completed in February 2016, it has only been screened once to an audience of Cooper’s relatives, friends and long-time fans. A number of medical issues and Cooper’s job with Access Living Organization, a disability rights advocacy group, have delayed progress on the film over the years but Cooper said he is still motivated to get “The Wheelchair Chronicles,” out to the public.
Cooper said he is planning to work with professionals in marketing, editing and music composition to hone elements of the film and build enough funds to submit his documentary in local film festivals. He added that regardless of his success with festival submissions he is planning on holding another private screening in August.
Cooper said the support he has gotten from people who have heard about the film drives him to finish and release the long-running project.
“I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of great people along the way and tell them about my project,” Cooper said. “Just the excitement from people has motivated me throughout the years to get it out for them to see.”
Cooper said he hopes when people see his film they realize that his story is just one of many and that there are millions of people who go through the same things as him.
Early in his life Cooper was able to walk regardless of a weakness in his legs which was diagnosed as a disease that slowly limits the use of voluntary muscles called Becker Muscular Dystrophy. After a growth spurt at age 12, Cooper developed a severe limp which made it difficult for him to walk. It wasn’t until he had reached 18 that his limp had grown so severe that he elected to get a wheelchair.
Cooper said it was difficult for him when he was first getting accustomed to relying on his wheelchair because it greatly limited his mobility around the city, something he had always enjoyed when he could walk. Cooper said he incorporates some of the distress he experienced during this time into his film with the hope of making people realize the mental struggles of those with disabilities as well as physical.
“[Being in a wheelchair] made my time as a teen really difficult,” Cooper said. “Oftentimes I was depressed because I just wasn’t able to get out of the house as much as I wanted to. I felt like there was nothing for me to do out there and no one to see.”
Struggling with his mental health during his teen years, Cooper said he had contemplated taking his own life on multiple occasions. It was not until he started taking classes at DePaul University that he said he started to overcome his depression.
“At DePaul I was able to meet a lot of different people who really had an influence on my perspective and on my life,” Cooper said. “They were very accepting of my disability and really accepting of who I was a person. Just being in that setting really set me up to start my film.”
Cooper graduated from DePaul in 2013 with a degree in communications, a minor in media and cinema studies and the motivation to start working on his documentary, something that would portray people with disabilities in a light seldom seen in popular media.
“People with disabilities have stories to share and although our lives may be completely different, at the root they are all the same,” Cooper said. “I hope one day someone sees the film and it makes them think differently about what people with disabilities go through regularly.”