Presented in partnership with Thriving Roots Initiative and Cleveland International Film Festival This panel aimed to discuss in more depth some of the issues facing Deaf/disabled people in the criminal justice system as experienced by the protagonist in the feature-length documentary film, Being Michelle. The panel brought together Deaf leaders and advocates as well as individuals who have experienced human rights abuses in the criminal justice system.

As a Deaf person, what would you do if you were put in prison for five years without an interpreter? According to a report by Respectability, it is estimated that 153,000 deaf individuals are incarcerated in jails or state and federal prisons. This number is staggering considering the Deaf community population is a mere 2 percent of the population. Being Michelle is a documentary that follows a DeafDisabled woman who was placed in prison for five years without access to communication. 

It is winning awards all over the nation at a variety of film festivals. In sharing this story, the unimaginable circumstances of a system that refused to provide accommodations for a Deaf person with autism, the truth is coming out. 

On their website,, they’ve announced an upcoming film festival called BraveMaker that is providing an in-person screening on July 9, 2022, at 3 PM in California. This feature-length documentary gives people a full picture of the truth behind our penal system and what it does to inmates. There is a preview of the documentary available on their website.

In the preview of the documentary, you can see the officers telling her to get down and the voiceover tells us the viewers that she is terrified of law enforcement as many others are. Towards the end, it says, “I was in prison for five years without an interpreter” and you see her walking down the halls of prison in cuffs. 

The team wants people to know that the documentary is a story of redemption and Michelle thrived in a broken system and is now forging a path to healing with Kim Law, the volunteer she met in prison. Michelle has since been released from prison but the fight is still going. She uses her artwork to share her own truth about what kind of trauma she has survived and is also using it in her recovery. 

In a press release shared by RespectAbility, RespectAbility’s Vice Chair, Delbert Whetter shared his thoughts. “Stories about people with disabilities have long been told through the lens of those that lack our lived life experience,” said Whetter. “In this film, we see Michelle’s Story. Her voice can be seen through her hands, her artwork, and those who Michelle loves and cherish in her life.”

The efforts don’t stop here, for they aim to spotlight stories all over the nation impacting those with disabilities and their traumatic experiences in jails and prisons. The same report by Respectability states that more than 750,000 incarcerated individuals have a disability and 32% in federal prisons, and 40% of individuals in jails have at least one disability.  With this film, the team hopes to raise awareness and educate on fundamental human rights for disabled people in the criminal justice system.