Freedom Machines

Year Released
Film Length(s)
56 mins
Closed captioning available
Remote video URL


Freedom Machines, a PBS Special, dramatically explores the concept of "disability" through the intimate stories of adults and children who are using modern technologies to change their lives. The film asks: if people have access to the tools that can help them be fully functioning citizens at home, at work and in school, then where is the disability? Is it the people themselves or a society that has yet to make accomodations to enable its largest minority group – 54,000,000 Americans with disabilities – to participate in the American Dream?

Featured review

As a university administrator and former judge, it is my hope that this remarkable film will be shown to faculty, staff, and students on campuses throughout this country.
– LaDoris H. Cordell
Special Counselor to the President for Campus Relations (Stanford University)


Freedom Machines looks at our beliefs about disability through the lens of technology access and use. The program explores how human experience and technological innovations are outpacing social policies through dramatic personal stories. Among them are Susanna who is beginning her college career, 38 year old Floyd Stewart who was paralyzed in mid-life while raising four children; 92 year old Gladys who is determined to overcome a hearing loss; and high school student Latoya Nesmith who dreams of becoming a translator at the U.N. Fifteen years after passage of the ADA, Freedom Machines is a riveting reflection on the status of life of America's largest minority group: 54 million people with disabilities.


First broadcast in September 2004 on the award-winning PBS series POV, Jamie Stobie's remarkable documentary reminds us how woefully uninformed--even at the dawn of the 21st century--society remains about issues related to disability. An enjoyable, progressive, inspirational survey of assistive technologies, this film serves a much-needed dual purpose: showing a variety of smart and determined people with disabilities working hard to gain acceptance and viable futures in the public mainstream, while also illustrating how new technologies are making it possible to gain access to previously unavailable services and activities. Laden with none of the sugarcoated sentiment that is so common in films about disability, the documentary also examines the benefits of the Americans with Disabilities Act (passed in 1990), while pointing out that a lot of social, political, and institutional obstacles still prevent many people with disabilities from fulfilling their highest potentials. Making a strong case for assistive technology as a human rights imperative and a sound fiscal policy, "Freedom Machines" manages a near-perfect balance of compassion, humor, political insight, and deep admiration for the people it profiles--individuals whose lives have been significantly improved by new technologies that bring hope where none existed before.***1/2 Stars. Highly recommended. Aud: H, C, P
FREEDOM MACHINES is the gigantic wake-up call needed by future teachers. I can think of no better way to challenge our attitudes and thinking than by viewing this film.
– Professor Mary Male (San Jose State University)
– Professor Mary Male (San Jose State University)
Many people with disabilities rely on specialized equipment such as wheelchairs, voice input programs, screen reading programs, TTY units, large key keyboards and print scanners to go about their daily lives. Utilizing interviews and home movies, this program focuses on several people with disabilities as they raise their families, go to school, college and work. They discuss and demonstrate the abilities of some of the adaptive equipment they use. They also discuss the difference that adaptive equipment has made in their lives and their struggles to get it. The problems obtaining these valuable "Freedom Machines," include funding sources, public education on the fundamental need for this type of equipment and the technological advances that are still necessary for some of the equipment. The interviews reveal the prejudices that people with disabilities still face and the fears and indifference that make it difficult for them to get the jobs they want and sometimes the adaptive equipment itself. Freedom Machines would be a good addition to any public or academic library collection. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
– Beth Traylor
University of Wisconsin Libraries, Milwaukee (Educational Media Reviews Online)
FREEDOM MACHINES is required viewing for teachers, service providers, policy makers, and anyone who works with disabled children, adults, or seniors. This film makes you think differently and opens your mind to what's possible. When people have the support they need, they soar.
– Andy Imparato
President and CEO (American Association of People with Disabilities)
In this compelling video about the possibilities of human achievement, viewers meet several physically disabled individuals (young and old) who lead dynamic, productive, and relatively independent lives thanks to assistive technology. Battery-powered wheelchairs, voice-enabled word processors, text-to-speech screen readers, programmable keyboards, and touch-face switches are among the items that aid persons lacking full mobility, vision, hearing, and other capabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act promises equal access to education, employment, and essential services, yet the vast majority of America's 54 million disabled still lack helpful technological devices. FREEDOM MACHINES sounds a call to action. Several disabled individuals, disability advocates, and inventors convincingly argue for access to technology that helps improve quality of life".
– Carol Holzberg (Booklist)
– Carol Holzberg (Booklist)
– Psychology Today
– Psychology Today
This is a singluar and definitive resource for our field. For staff development, work with parent groups, I.E.P. teams, policy and decision makers, FREEDOM MACHINES has it all.
– Alice Parker
Ed.D. Director, Special Education (California Department of Education)
FREEDOM MACHINES touches on the dignity that we all strive for in life and opens our minds to the possibliites of a true learning community. Each time I watch it I am moved beyond words.
– Ken Graeber Special Education Teacher
– Ken Graeber Special Education Teacher
I am really glad I was born the time I was because I wouldn't have gotten the education I had. Geez, that's frightening. I can't imagine not being able to hear teachers talk about chemistry, physics, or English. I can't imagine someone limiting my abilities that far."-- Susanna Sweeney-Martini This quote begins "Freedom Machines," a documentary about the significant impact of technology in the lives of people with disabilities. But the documentary also covers the unfulfilled promise of technology for many. It does an excellent job of documenting what might be called the rampant "technology discrimination" that faces many people with disabilities daily. The documentary illustrates how far technology has come in assisting people to live full lives within their community, but it also shows us how far we have to go as a society to get this crucial technology into the hands of all the people with disabilities who need it. Through a series of profiles of people with disabilities using technology in their lives, the documentary shows daily living and educational pursuits enhanced by a variety of assistive technologies. Susanna Sweeney-Martini, a college student from Spokane, Washington, is the first person shown. Her power wheelchair and her voice-input computer help her pursue her goal to become an oceanographer or marine biologist. It also illustrates her leisure activities as she wheels up and down the soccer field as an umpire or has lunch with a girlfriend in a college cafe. But the profiles of the young people are interspersed with interviews from their parents, who explain the constant challenges to get adequate technology for their children. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) are supposed to legally guarantee accommodation for people with disabilities, many continue to face inequities and lack of services and technology. One of the more compelling profiles is of Latoya Nesmith, an African American, Albany, NY, high school student. She has a true passion for languages and wants to become a United Nations translator one day or write a Polish opera (because she thinks the Slovak languages get short shrift). But she has to educate her teachers about the assistive technology that she needs to reach her educational goals, such as Intellikeys (which is a programmable enlarged keyboard that can be connected to any computer to assist someone with limited hand mobility). One can see the frustration she and her mother face as she diligently works--many times without the added technology she needs to move forward. A half a dozen other people with disabilities are featured with stories similar to Latoya's-- people fighting to build careers or get educations without all the technological support they need. The documentary does give hope, however, because it illustrates that the needed technology does exist in most cases, from improvements in hearing aids to the IBOT, the wheelchair that climbs stairs. The documentary premiered on PBS around the country as part of the "POV" documentary series in September 2004. And that is the perfect audience for it. For people from the Disability Studies world, the documentary tells a story we already know. However, the general public and our students unfamiliar with disability issues should all see this documentary to truly understand the "technology discrimination" that faces so many Americans with disabilities.
Beth A. Haller
Ph.D. Associate Professor of Journalism, Towson University (Disability Studies Quarterly)

Awards and Screenings

2012 American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, Denver CO, 2012
Council on Foundations Film Festival, 2012
A.T. Network Outreach Award, 2008
FIRST LEGO League NO LIMITS World Festival, 2005
ADA Anniversary, Dept. of Commerce, Washington DC, 2005

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Closed Captioning
  • DVD Extras
  • Resources for Educators

Promotional Material

Promotional Stills

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