Dancer, actor and motivation speaker J.R. Martinez.

When J.R. Martinez returned from Iraq, he didn’t want to be labeled a “disabled veteran.”

In 2003, when he was just 19, Martinez's Humvee hit a roadside bomb. He sustained severe burns to a third of his body and was in a coma for nearly a week. But as he began his healing process, he knew he didn’t want to be pigeonholed.

“Naturally, when you hear ‘disabled veteran,’ you think of someone who is not physically capable or mentally capable or emotionally capable,” he says. “And so my tagline is, ‘Every day I strive to diss the dis- in disability,” and prove to the world that I have nothing but ability.”

It’s why he prefers terms like "differently-abled." And it’s also what led him to pursue a career in acting and television. In 2011, eight years after his accident, he and his dance partner, Karina Smirnoff, won Season 13 of Dancing with the Stars.

Martinez will join other creatives like actor Marlee Matlin, pianist Darrius Simmons and artist Mara Clawson for the 8th annual ReelAbilities Film and Arts Festival, a free citywide event that promotes inclusion through the arts, celebrates the contributions of artists living with disabilities, and aims to erase the stigmas Martinez speaks of. This year’s festival also celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Martinez and partner Karina Smirnoff after winning Dancing With The Stars.

The festival kicks off Tuesday, Feb 11 with the UP Abilities speakers series, featuring Martinez; Rebecca Alexander, a psychotherapist and endurance athlete who has both vision and hearing loss; and Simmons, who was born with just four fingers. The festival also features 15 films, two art show (including one that is multi-sensory and “touch and see,” which allows those with visual impairments to experience art through touch), and a closing night concert.

But ReelAbilities, which is produced by the JFS Alexander Institute for Inclusion, a resource that aims to decrease the stigma of disabilities both in the workplace and community, is more than just an arts festival. In its eight years, it has expanded to include year-round initiatives that bring educational programs to local schools and inclusivity support to local workplaces.

Martinez said that continued advocacy is what makes the ReelAbilities Festival unique.

"You don’t really see a lot of festivals that are tailored directly towards this community," he says. "And to use the power of the arts to be able to bring these individuals, and their experiences, and what they deal with to life, I think that is truly incredible. But then, to partner with the JFS Alexander Institute, which is constantly doing work on a day to day basis—there’s action behind it. You have people that really understand this demographic and the people that they serve, and are constantly looking for ways to improve that experience for them and for everybody else that they encounter.”

Martinez says that being involved in the arts, specifically acting and dancing, allowed him to be vulnerable and to be seen in a way that transcended his injuries.

“It allowed me to understand how to express myself differently, through a different form, through a different art—and to be able to show myself and the rest of the world that there were many layers to me,” he says. “The arts allow you to create a safe space to be vulnerable and use that platform as a way to express yourself and get your message across to people.”

He hopes the ReelAbilities Festival help further that conversation.

“It’s an opportunity for people to expand their mind and their perspective of how you view an individual that may be labeled with this particular thing," Martinez says. "If you're curious enough, and you just want to know a little bit more, this is a great opportunity to come be curious, because I think that is the space where curiosity is welcomed and embraced and and nourished."

The majority 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 info and to reserve tickets, visit reelabilitieshouston.org.

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