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Student tapped to co-direct Ladd Center documentary
March 10, 2014
Community College of Rhode Island student Bob Macaux has always had a passion for acting and theater. As a Theatre major, he has pushed himself to learn about different aspects of theatrical and video production, all of which play to his strengths as a leader and a performer. Now, Macaux has found himself in the midst of learning a very different set of lessons – and on the job, no less – as he is set to co-direct his first feature length documentary on a subject close to him.
Macaux has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that occurs in one out of every 691 infants born each year, according to an estimate from the National Down Syndrome Society. Though the chromosomal abnormality can cause a range of physical and mental variances from the “norm” in the people whom it affects, historically, people with Down have been lumped together in a cloud of prejudice. As it has so often been the case with differently abled persons, it used to be standard practice to institutionalize people with Down, rather than incorporating them into what could otherwise be an enriching and wonderful experience in the outside world. Society’s fears and stigmas kept these individuals locked up and away; here in Rhode Island, specifically, the developmentally disabled were often relegated to the Joseph Ladd Center in Exeter.
Opened in 1908 and shuttered in 1993, the Ladd Center is the subject of the documentary film, “Best Judgment: Ladd School Lessons,” directed by Rhode Island School of Design professor and Academy Award nominee James Wolpaw. Macaux, through his work with Advocates in Action, was tapped to co-direct the project, which recently met its fundraising goal on Indiegogo to the tune of more than $53,000 (donations are still being taken for the film by mail).
For both men, it has been a learning experience: Wolpaw described the eye-opening process of researching the film as well as working with members of his crew who have developmental disabilities, and Macaux said that this is his first feature film undertaking.
Like Wolpaw, Macaux said he also has been profoundly affected by some of the stories that the documentary has already uncovered about the history of mistreatment at Ladd.
“Jimmy Isom, who is doing some singing for the film as well as scoring the music, told me this story, which is kind of horrific. It’s about this young teenager at Ladd in the ’50s, when the way of discipline was much more harsh: They put this teenager in a burlap sack and tied it up in a shower stall and put hot water on him. He suffocated and died. That story horrifies the heck out of me, and I just don’t think that’s the way that people should be treated,” said Macaux.
Wolpaw added that the abuse – along with discipline policies that could most nearly be described as corporal – was further complicated because of the social norms of the era. In addition to Ladd residents, he said he’s interviewed people who worked there – young workers right out of college who were merely following orders given by their higher-ups and Ladd physicians.
Macaux said he has been fortunate to never have experienced the abuses that went on at Ladd and other institutions of its ilk. He said he’s had a supportive family, and a good educational experience, having access to the special education classes he needed throughout his middle and high school years, which has served as a confidence booster for him.
Taking classes at CCRI has been a vital part of that, too. “CCRI has changed my life in a positive way,” he said, “People here are very kind in terms of acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome. And I believe that people with Down syndrome have a fighting chance of being in college all the time – we’re always looking to do things we haven’t done before.”
Other than exploring his academic interests at the college since 2003, Macaux credits Advocates in Action and the National Down Syndrome Society with giving him the opportunity to further expand his self-confidence and gain versatility in life skills. Through the nonprofit, Macaux said he has taken leadership courses, learning “how to be a good leader in the community.” And it’s ultimately Advocates that connected him with Wolpaw and the Ladd project.
“It didn’t make sense for me to make this film about Ladd without the help of people with disabilities. It’s not a token thing,” said Wolpaw. “Bob was an obvious choice to co-direct. He’s articulate, he has background in theater and has taken courses in film and he’s a quick study. He’s a really incredible person; he’s got a lot of energy and he’s always looking to put into practice what he’s learning.”
In addition to providing a firsthand lens through which to view the story and those it affects, Wolpaw also pointed out that involving these self-advocates in the process of making the documentary showed him a poignant example of what’s possible when an individual finally receives equal treatment and recognition for his or her talents.
Wolpaw recounted the “amazing transformation” that happened as Isom, whose musical talent often was recognized by peers at Ladd who listened to him tap out rhythms on tables, began to work with professional musician Mark Cutler on the music for the film.
“Jimmy had this amazing transformation,” said Wolpaw. “Generally, when we think about treatment toward people with disabilities, we think about giving them support and letting them live lives the best lives they can live. But at the same time, our attitude toward people with disabilities affects what they can do; they see themselves reflected in the way we see them. I think Jimmy never sang at a certain level because that’s what was expected of him, but when he was with someone who presented him with the opportunity to do more, he did more.”
Macaux is no stranger to the rewards of higher expectations. Through his coursework, his performances and now by co-directing his first documentary film, he said he’s learned the value – and the payoff – of perseverance. And he hopes that, when the film is released in spring 2015, others can see that value made visible in the film.
“I hope this film changes people’s minds and perspectives about people with disabilities. And I hope that people with disabilities who watch this will find another lease on life, another chance to do things that they haven’t done before,” he said.
For more information on “Best Judgment: Ladd School Lessons” and to learn how to mail in donations, visit the film’s website.