Climbing Mountains to Move Them: Allison Norlian on Disability & Film
Allison Norlian is a force of nature. She grew up knowing that her calling was to “speak for the voiceless,” as she puts it. Raised by a single mom alongside her sister, Becky, who has a severe cognitive disability, Norlian says she has long known that she has the strength to move mountains.
With a decade in the media landscape as a journalist and three Emmy nominations under her belt, Norlian recently began producing of documentary films. BirdMine Productions was born in 2020 as a new avenue through which to share crucial and captivating stories. Norlian’s journalism has always centered on advocating for people with disabilities — she explains that it’s her way of connecting with her sister and those like her. She regularly writes pieces that center people with disabilities for Forbes Women. Her exposé about a facility that was mistreating its disabled residents even earned her an Emmy nomination. I recently sat down with Norlian to speak to her about her activism and her latest, most ambitious project to date.
Q: You’ve said that growing up with a sister who has a disability inspired you to do the advocacy and activism work that you do. Can you share with me about growing up with your sister, and when you realized that the world was treating her differently?
A: My sister Rebecca (Becky) is disabled. Doctors classified her as “severely cognitively disabled” and someone who presents as having a syndrome with autistic characteristics. Becky is six years older than me. Because I was the second child, growing up with a sister with disabilities was all I knew. Although our life was different from the outside world, it was normal to me.
I realized Becky was considered different from people outside of my family when I was in second grade. My sister is vocal but not verbal; she makes sounds and can be loud. Something Becky did was ‘stim,’ something people with autism do to decrease sensory overload.
[When] my mom then brought Becky down for lunch, Becky made noises and walked into the living room, [stimming]. My friend got scared and started crying. She wanted to go home. That was the first time I realized my family was unique, and I would need to be a voice for my sister.
Q: You recently branched out into documentary filmmaking. Why did you make that career move? What past projects have you crafted with your production company, BirdMine Productions?
A: When I was in college, I interned five times. When I interned at Comcast Sportsnet in Philly, I met [my business partner] Kody; he was also an intern. We [both] wanted to focus on investigative stories and stories that dealt with social justice, humanitarian issues rather than breaking news and news-of-the-day type stories we were constantly forced to report on. We started to talk about someday starting a documentary production company to focus on the stories we want to tell.
BirdMine, our company, focuses on elevating and amplifying the voices of people who are underrepresented and often marginalized in society. We focus on the stories of people with disabilities, minority communities, and anyone who feels othered. Since we started, we’ve worked on several shorter pieces, [such as] a story about how an artist with Down syndrome’s portrait of Joe Biden went viral and ultimately led him to meet the President.
Q: Your upcoming project is a doozy — scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro with disabled activist Erika Bogan and filming the climb to raise awareness to suicidal ideation in the disabled community. How did you meet Erika and get involved in the climb?
A: When Kody and I first began BirdMine, we had several different ideas for possible stories to produce. One of those stories was how people with disabilities were impacting the fitness community. [During] our research, someone recommended we speak to Erika, since she is a CrossFit athlete and races in obstacle course races in a wheelchair. I reached out and interviewed Erika over Zoom. At the very end of our hour-long conversation, as an aside, Erika casually mentioned that she was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.
I found it incredible that she was doing it to conquer her fears and mental blocks and challenge herself physically. Erika mentioned she was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise awareness about suicide in the disability community. Erika has suffered from depression since her accident and was even suicidal. She also has had several friends die by suicide. She wants to climb Kilimanjaro to raise awareness and save lives.
Q: Why did Erika choose Mt. Kilimanjaro as her goal? Were there other potential goals for her project?
More Heart Than Scars is a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities compete in obstacle course races, [and] becoming an obstacle course racer changed Erika’s life. Her More Heart Than Scars family made her realize she wasn’t alone in her battle with mental health issues.
In 2020, Joey Mcglamory, part of the More Heart Than Scars team, posted on Facebook about possibly leading a trip with a travel agency he works with to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Erika read that post, and responded that she wanted to go too. She decided she wanted to climb the mountain with a purpose though, because of several close friends [with disabilities] who have died by sucide over the last few years.
Next up, after Kilimanjaro, in 2022, Erika hopes to reach Machu Picchu in Peru.
Q: What do you hope the impact of this film will be, on a practical level? How do you envision that it will impact the lives of people living with disabilities?
I hope it inspires people to take chances, and to work to find something that will provide them happiness and peace. I hope it shows people with disabilities who may doubt themselves because of the stigmas they face in society, that they are capable of anything they put their minds to, and that this film influences the way non-disabled people view disability. Lastly, I hope it educates the public about suicide in the disability community and creates some type of change where this is discussed, tracked, and taken seriously. If someone with a mental health problem or suicidal ideation watches the film, I hope they feel less alone.
To contribute to the production of Allison’s film, visit their fundraiser.