Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself comes out today, and I’m eager to read it. From what I’ve heard, he writes a lot about his middle-class Midwestern upbringing in Urbana, Ill., a place Mike and I were proud to call home for many, many years, and the town where our son Gus was born. Ebert was born in Urbana in 1942. Early reviews say he glows about his dad, an electrician at the University of Illinois, in his book.
You might remember me glowing about Roger Ebert in a post I wrote when he was given an award from Access Living, a disability advocacy organization here in Chicago. Access Living’s Lead On award “recognizes national leaders who have helped reframe the understanding of people with disabilities and who have helped to remove the barriers–physical and attitudinal–that exclude people with disabilities from career pursuits and everyday life.”
Roger Ebert represents the very embodiment of what the award stands for. Thyroid cancer has left him unable to speak. He has no lower jaw, and friends tell me his face can be difficult to look at. Others might stay inside, slow down, retire. Not Roger. He just keeps on doing the work he loves–reviewing movies, blogging, attending film festivals and continuing to manage his own festival, too.
I pretty much gave up on movies after I lost my sight. Until Roger Ebert started his Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign Urbana, that is. Mike, Gus and I were living in Urbana at the time, and the before-and-after lectures made the overlooked films more accessible to people like me. My guess is Roger didn’t have people with disabilities in mind when he decided to host talks and panels before and after films there, but hey, ain’t life grand when ideas like that turn out to be “universal design?!” Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, affectionately known as “Ebertfest” by locals, helped me realize I can still appreciate movies.
Roger Ebert uses a text-to-speech program called “Alex” to make presentations at film festivals and conferences now. “For me, the Internet began as a useful tool and now has become something I rely on for my actual daily existence,” he told an audience at the Ted Conference earlier this year, explaining why he considers himself fortunate to be born in this era. “[If this had happened before], I’d be isolated as a hermit; I’d be trapped inside my head. Because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not have to scream.”
I can relate. I mean, sure, technology can be annoying at times. For many of us with disabilities, however, technology is a lifesaver. Thank you, Roger Ebert, for the courage and fortitude you’ve shown in getting your voice heard. We all benefit from hearing your reviews, and now, thanks to technology–my Victor Reading Stream and the National Library Service–I can look forward to reading your life story, too.