A PARAPLEGIC CHOREOGRAPHER teaches students with disabilities how to dance. Three blind New Yorkers navigate the world of online dating, hoping to find true love. The parents of a teenage boy with autism decide to recruit and train a competitive swim team of boys on the autism spectrum. 

Films featuring these real-life stories will screen at the sixth annual ReelAbilities Film and Arts Festival, an interdisciplinary effort to educate the public and celebrate the lives of those living with mental and/or physical disabilities.

The festival does this with an eye on impressionable young minds, partnering with the Children's Museum of Houston to present several family-friendly screenings. It also offers Houston educators special screenings for students and facilitates post-film discussions. 

"Because of the time ReelAbilities spends in the schools, students grow up with a clearer understanding and acceptance of people living with disabilities, which is only going to make our world better," says Vikki Evans, the festival chairperson. Last year, ReelAbilities programming reached more than 5,000 students.

That educational aspect isn’t limited to the kids, though. On Monday, February 19, the festival screens Prison Dogs, Perri Peltz's award-winning film about prison inmates who train puppies as service animals to assist soldiers living with PTSD. Afterward, members of the Texas-based Patriot Paws program will be present with the resulting service dogs—an interactive format shared by all of the festival's more than a dozen films and documentaries. 

Besides film, the festival includes a number of other initiatives: ReelArt, which showcases the best of art from adults living with disabilities; RealPeople: UP Abilities, a one-night speaker series from three renowned thought leaders, including deaf singer-songwriter and America's Got Talent finalist Mandy Harvey; and ReelMusic, an inclusive jazz and blues jam session at White Oak Music Hall. 

The ReelArt exhibit, which runs throughout the festival, will feature several works by Brandon Lack, the supremely gifted artist living with Down syndrome whose eye for colors and composition in nature call to mind the paintings of Van Gogh or Matisse. "I love clouds," Lack says. "I need lots of colors."  

At ReelMusic, the festival's closing event, some of Houston's finest professional musicians will invite musicians with disabilities to join them onstage for a jam session. In previous years, ReelMusic has featured such heavies as the late, great master drummer Sebastian Whittaker and saxophonist Kelly Dean, who will lead this year's session. Dean first heard about ReelAbilities from one of his music students who, despite being paralyzed from the waist down, has earned a full scholarship for his "insane wheelchair basketball skills," and even managed (with a little help from his teacher) to learn to play the drums. 

Nearly all of the festival events are free, but advance reservations are required. All the festival films are audio described, and ASL interpretation is available for deaf and hearing-impaired viewers. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit reelabilitieshouston.org.

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