Sarah Barton has tried to champion film and television that advances the rights of people with disabilities since the beginning of her career.

Her first film, 1994’s Untold Desires, took a frank look into sexuality and disability. Barton then went on to create the community television series No Limits, presented by people with disabilities; the show launched the career of late comedian Stella Young.

After Barton stepped off that program, which she described as “super-fast-paced, ultra-low budget television”, she decided she wanted to look at disability in a more considered way and within a historical-political context.

“I started looking into the history of how disabled people were represented and very quickly the story became one about the disability rights movement,” she told IF.

The resulting documentary, Defiant Lives – which looks at the past 40 years of the disability rights movements in Australia, the UK and the US – took some eight years to put together.

Barton got her first bit of development funding from Film Victoria in 2008, but in 2010 received a Churchill Fellowship, the “big impetus for the film”. The fellowship allowed the director – who also produced the film with Liz Burke – to travel to the US and UK, camera in tow, to research and interview activists. She later received some other small grants and ran a crowdfunding campaign to help shoot the Australian side of the story and drive the film towards completion, and Screen Australia then came on board in 2015 with the rest of the finance.

Barton was keen to include different international perspectives on disability rights to give people “a much more connected view of the movement”. She also recognised it would allow the film to travel. After its recent world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, Defiant Lives screened at the United Nations Conference on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities in New York.

As to why the disability rights movement has not been as well-documented as the civil or gay rights movements, Barton suggests several reasons, including that “disability is something people often want to look away from.”

“Because stories about disability have been so focused on individual impairment and tragedy and that sort of thing, people have not wanted to look at it too deeply.”

Barton also suggested that it is only in recent years that people with disabilities have been able to easily access film equipment to tell their own stories. “New technologies and the availability of cameras and editing equipment has made film a much more democratic medium,” she said.

She said initiatives like Create NSW’s Screenability, which aims to create more opportunities for people with disabilities to enter the screen industry, are already “way overdue.”

“In a sense, what I’ve seen now is something I would have like to have seen starting to happen a decade ago. But I think it’s great now that the agencies are starting to think about inclusivity and access to filmmaker funds.”

In order to achieve greater participation of people with disabilities in the sector, Barton suggested that there needs to be specialised support akin to Screen Australia’s Indigenous Unit.

“Some of the best film and television in the country now is made by Indigenous filmmakers or involves Indigenous stories; the quality is just phenomenal. That’s a direct result of a couple of decades of investment, support and talent development. What the disability sector needs is a similar commitment. You can’t just see things change overnight.”

Further, Barton said there needs to be a conversation as to how production hours and conditions can be made more accessible or flexible for people with a disability.

“When I was doing No Limits, one of my presenters said to me: ‘Look, my support workers don’t arrive at my house until 8 o’clock in the morning and by the time we’ve gone through my routine, I can’t really be anywhere until 10 or 10.30.’ When someone explained that to me, it was like ‘okay, I just need to change my scheduling to accommodate this person’s need,’” said Barton.

“It can be a pretty brutal schedule when you’re doing a film shoot. That’s not always something disabled people can sustain. We really need to think about different ways of running productions. Sometimes unfortunately that means that they’re going to cost a little bit more, but not always… There’s an awful lot we can all learn but I think it’s really doable and important.”

Defiant Lives is being released in Australia, the United States and Britain via cinema-on-demand platform Demand.Film.