Frontline Initiative Coping with Disaster

We Watch the City:
Stories in the Shadow of 9/11


Jerry Smith is a project coordinator and filmmaker at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

We Watch the City: Stories in the Shadow of 9/11, a video documentary and booklet about New Yorkers with developmental and other disabilities and those who support them in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, began shortly after the terrorist attack. The Administration on Developmental Disabilities, Federal Department of Health and Human Safety, was interested in exploring the responses of people with developmental disabilities who were caught in the middle of this catastrophic event. The Research and Training Center on Community Living (RTC) at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration was asked to work on this project because they had produced documentary projects, involving the participation of people with developmental disabilities in the past. By mid-October of 2001, the project was underway and dozens of people with disabilities, Direct Support Professionals, administrators, and allies were contacted to participate. Due to time and budget considerations, this project was limited to the events of New York City.

We could not begin interviewing people in New York until April of 2002, because of the upheaval in New York City after the attacks on the World Trade Center. This delay certainly changed the nature of the interviews as most people responded rather stoically to our questions about 9/11. New York City itself changed dramatically during this time as well, as recovery and construction crews worked tirelessly through the devastation of the trade center site, referred to as “ground zero.” By spring of 2002 the site had become a large hole, most of the debris had been removed. Still, thousands of people came each day to look at the site where the towers once stood. The area had become a memorial and a shrine. 

Once we received approval to begin interviewing, a number of provider agencies came forward and provided us with essential assistance by connecting us with people whose lives were deeply affected by the events. YAI- National Institute for People with Disabilities, Lifespire, Job Path, FEGS, United Cerebral Palsy of New York, and other organizations shared our concern that stories should be gathered and delivered to a wide audience.

Tony Phillips of Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, who is a deacon in his church, and an Americorps volunteer, helped during most of the on-camera interviews. Not only did Tony seem to know most everyone in the city, but his knowledge of the service delivery system evoked many questions we might never have asked. Beyond exploring personal stories of 9/11 and after, Tony would often ask Direct Support Professionals how they benefited from their involvement with the people they support. “Who helped you on 9/11?” “In what ways did the people you support help in the days following 9/11?” Through Tony’s involvement, we gained a better understanding of what Direct Support Professionals experienced and a deeper appreciation of the bonds people developed. These were not stories of a tragic day, but of friendships, of deeply felt relationships that transcended labels of “staff” and “consumer.”

Over course of interviewing and shooting footage, perhaps the most striking part of this project was how similar people’s stories of 9/11 were to those without disabilities. The desire to help others, New Yorker pride, the anger toward the terrorists, the outpouring of grief, and the willingness to get back to work — all of these were present in the comments most everyone we interviewed. Perhaps at some time in the future, news media will include stories of people with disabilities and a project such as this will not be necessary. But we are not there yet, as Tony and I discovered when we asked reporters on the anniversary of 9/11 if they were covering the reaction of people with disabilities. These stories of 9/11, of people with disabilities and those who support them, are really just stories of ordinary people who, like other New Yorkers on that day, experienced tragedies and responded by rising to extraordinary levels. These stories stand out as unique and different because no one else has told them.