The podcast Basic Able takes an irreverent look at art, culture and political issues important to the disability community.
When Reid Davenport was denied a place in a study-abroad program due to the fact that he uses a wheelchair, he found a way to go explore Europe anyway — and in the process, documented Europe’s lack of accessibility for people with disabilities. The resulting award-winning film Wheelchair Diaries: One Step Up launched Davenport’s career as a documentary filmmaker.
Since then, Davenport, a TED Fellow, has continued creating documentaries about people with disabilities, telling stories from their perspectives and countering the usual storytelling tropes used by mainstream media — whether as passive subjects, victims or inspirational figures. He also started Through My Lens, an organization that teaches students with disabilities the art of filmmaking, part of his overall mission to encourage and amplify the voices and narratives of disabled people.
This year, Davenport also branched out into podcasting. Titled Basic Able, the podcast includes incisive, irreverent and often hilarious interviews with prominent folks in the disability community — including former president of the Disability History Association Catherine Kudlick, stand-up comedian Nina G, and communications director for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Lawrence Carter Long.
“The cycle between gross media portrayal of disability and society’s ableism is nauseating,” says Davenport. “Basic Able is about distracting people from the fact that they’re gaining insight by coating it with sarcasm, spoof commercials and the occasional fart joke. Kinda like what that Jon Stewart character did with politics.”
With this week’s episode, Basic Able wraps up its first season — with another to follow in September. Here, we catch up with Davenport about how and why he’s put down his camera to get behind the mic.
You’re known as a documentary filmmaker — what made you want to do a podcast?
I’d never thought about doing a podcast but, inspired by some of the TED Fellows who produce them, I decided I liked the idea of an episodic format that could cover multiple issues. As a filmmaker, you can really only dive into a limited number of subjects per film. Being able to focus on something different every episode appealed to me. So I applied for a grant from the Ford Foundation, and got it. We started producing Basic Able in early 2018, and we’ve just released the last of the six episodes in the first series.
Though you cover a lot of serious topics, these podcasts also show off a wicked sense of humor. I found myself laughing out loud — especially at your irreverence towards Oprah! That made me realize we’re not used to being “allowed” to laugh at anything surrounding disability. Why is the show’s sense of humor important?
It’s definitely satire. I try to introduce the topics we cover with jokes. Sometimes I have a brief monologue, start out asking the guest some goofy questions and then we dive into the real crux of the interview.
Podcasts have been exploding for some time, and we needed some way to stand out. People have options to listen to so many shows that you really need to carve out your own space. At the very least, I want Basic Able to be known as the disability podcast that has a corny sense of humor.
But we don’t really make fun of disability — we make fun of society’s reaction to disability. For me, it’s hard to miss.