In conversation with Brad Bailey, director of Student Academy Award-Winning documentary ‘Hale’

Brad Bailey/The Bancroft Library/Courtesy

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This week, it is safe to say that almost every student at UC Berkeley and every member of the larger city of Berkeley knows a good amount about the three words that have been resonating through campus lately — “Free Speech Week.” To know that one of the largest civil disobedience efforts took place at this very campus is obviously exciting, and, lately, maybe slightly overwhelming. Brad Bailey, a alumnus of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, however, was particularly fascinated by another, lesser-known movement that had its roots in this very college campus.

Bailey is the director of “Hale,” a documentary about Hale Zukas, one of the most prominent activists in the disability rights movement, who studied math at UC Berkeley. Born in 1943 and diagnosed soon after with cerebral palsy, Hale spent — and continues to spend — almost his entire life fighting to remold the lives of people with disabilities. From playing an active role in the 1977 demonstrations that fought for the passing of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act — which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability — to actually confronting the Carter administration about 504, Hale has changed the way people look at disabilities.

Now, at 74, Zukas is credited as being one of the key figures that aided the BART Accessibility Task Force in making public transport more accessible to disabled people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Zukas began his UC Berkeley education at a time when the then-Berkeley Physically Disabled Students Program had recently been established, because of the incredible efforts of Ed Roberts, the first student with severe disabilities to attend UC Berkeley. The number of disabled students at the university was rising, and the university was struggling to meet their demands. Hale, along with several other students, decided to change things around themselves. Thus, the Center for Independent Living was founded: a group by and for disabled people, the first of its kind. Accessibility was forever revolutionized, and the disability rights movement began to dig its way out of the tunnel it had been suppressed under for so long.

Few know Hale’s incredible story and his continuing fight, and Bailey decided to change this. The result was “Hale,” a film that was recently awarded a Student Academy Award for the ‘Documentary’ category. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Bailey spoke about his inspiration, the filming process and why “Hale” was an unbelievably rewarding experience for him.

“I was just spellbound as to who he was, what his identity was about, what his life was like,” Bailey explained. “When I found out that he was one of the country’s great disability activists, I was blown away.”

When he first came to UC Berkeley, Bailey was unaware of the fact that Berkeley was the birthplace of the disability rights movement. “This is a story I thought was very powerful, and when I saw the challenges that Hale has had to overcome, it changed my view of what people were capable of, and what I was personally capable of.”

Bailey felt a sense of urgency throughout his filming process. “I felt that Hale’s story was long overdue for younger generations; that younger generations needed to know not only about Hale, but they needed to know about Ed Roberts, they needed to know about Judy Heumann. They needed to know about all these amazing people who existed on the streets of Berkeley before any of us were born that changed how we look at the world today.” The fact that Hale is still around and fighting for the same cause he has been fighting for for more than 40 years was what pressed Bailey to start researching and filming almost as soon as he thought of the idea. “We didn’t know where it would end up; there are so many ways to tell a story. But I think what we did end up doing at a minimum was showing Hale’s strength, and his courage, and his determination,” Bailey adds.

“Hale” was inspired not only by Bailey’s genuine, immense admiration for Hale Zukas and his efforts, but also by Bailey’s personal experiences. December 2016 saw the passing of his grandfather, and that very experience changed how Bailey perceived so many things. “That process taught me more patience and understanding. By the time I had started shooting the film in December. … I was a different person,” said Bailey. “In a sense, I was able to understand his challenge through my own transformation, and part of the film process for me was to try and communicate that transformation to the people; try to allow the viewer to undergo their own transformation after seeing who Hale was and what he was capable of.”

According to Bailey, his personal loss, in addition to the technical skills he acquired at the Berkeley School of Journalism, came together to make this project successful. “I think that’s why it resonates with people — because I put my complete heart and soul into it. As journalists, we do various sorts of projects, but I think rarely does something come along where you identify wholly with the subject matter,” he said.

Bailey described Hale as fascinating, with a wicked sense of humor. He mentioned that Hale is always punctual, remembers everything and forgets nothing. “What’s really great is that he’s been around us the whole time, and that we saw him everyday. He doesn’t like the accolades, to be honest, but I think at the same time … just like the Civil Rights movements, or the gay (rights) movement, or any other major movement that shaped American history, disability history must be talked about and revisited always.”

The film is, in every sense, inspiring. The camera follows this brilliant man on a wheelchair as he takes the BART around the city and uses the very accessibility tools that he helped create. The camera traces the letters on the letter board that he uses to communicate, and tells an extremely powerful story of a man that made history. The viewer can’t help but think just how rewarding an experience it must have been for the director, and Bailey agrees wholeheartedly.

“For me, the biggest takeaway from this experience was understanding what people were capable of — understanding that there’s no limitation to how people can overcome an obstacle, and that was my greatest lesson,” Bailey explained. “I’ll never look at any challenge the same way again.”

Contact Anoushka Agrawal at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that The Daily Californian interviewed Hale Zukas. In fact, the Daily Cal interviewed Brad Bailey for this article.