Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy from The Catalyst

From The Catalyst Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities in Illinois, Dec 2007 – Jan 2008

by CCDI PR and Marketing Coordinator Jessica Hayes

I attended my very first CCDI Conference in 1998. I didn’t work for the Coalition yet – in fact I had just been hired by the newly opened Jacksonville Area Center for Independent Living. I have had a disability my entire life, but I was new to the world of disability rights advocacy, and was sorely in need of training. It was at this conference, in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield, IL, that I first laid eyes on Diana Braun and Kathy Conour. My memory of Kathy is particularly vivid. She has CP and uses a power wheelchair with lots of assistive technology attached in various locations. On the back of her chair was a bumper sticker that read “Pat my head and I’ll bite your hand!” At that moment in time a switch was flipped on in my head as I said to myself, ‘Oh, that’s what a disability rights advocate is.’

There are few among us who are capable of making that kind of an impact by just being themselves. It is this special gift that prompted filmmaker Alice Elliott to begin filming Diana and Kathy.

The story of Diana and Kathy’s life is an extraordinary one. Long before civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the pair was forging ahead into unexplored territory as they fought to live independent lives.

At the age eight, Diana Braun was removed from an abusive family situation and sent to live at a state operated nursing home. At 12, she moved to Dixon Developmental Center where she lived until she was 19. As an adult with Down Syndrome, Diana vowed to one day close state run institutions. In her own words, “Institutions are not a safe place to be.”

Kathy Conour’s upbringing was radically different from Diana’s. She was raised the only child of a loving, if not overprotective, family from Springfield, IL. She attended high school in Chicago and went on to obtain a bachelors degree in Social Work from Olivet Nazarene College with a minor in Business Administration. It was at Kathy’s first job in 1970 at a sheltered workshop in Ottawa, IL that she met Diana. The rest as they say is history, and the world is fortunate that Alice Elliott recorded a piece of that history.

Elliott first met Diana and Kathy in 2002 at a national ARC convention held in Columbus, Ohio, after a screening of Elliott’s Academy Award nominated documentary The Collector of Bedford Street. Kathy had been thinking about the idea of a documentary for years and says that when she saw The Collector of Bedford Street, she knew Elliott was the one.

“We waited outside after the movie for two hours,” said Diana of their first meeting with Elliott.

While Kathy was convinced she and Diana would be the subject of Elliott’s next film, it took some work to convince Elliott. Although flattered by their praise and enthusiasm for her work, Elliott at first said she wasn’t interested in filming the pair. She had no idea how persistent, and persuasive Kathy could be.

After many e-mails and phone calls, Elliott finally agreed to travel to Springfield and film Diana and Kathy for a week. She thought the two would realize what an intrusion the documentary would be, but the experience only got them more excited.

“It was like having another roommate,” said Diana.

After the first trip to Springfield, Elliott was convinced too. She says it was, “when I looked at the footage after I got home and found them both funny and compelling,” that she totally embraced the idea. And so five-years of filming Body and Soul began.

Completed in 2007, Body and Soul has premiered in both Chicago and Springfield. In addition, Kathy and Diana have been making the rounds to conferences and meetings across the country where the film has been featured. Praise for Body and Soul has been overwhelming. Only after a few months of limited showings, Diana and Kathy have become superstars in the disability community as well as the recipients of a number of awards.

So what makes Body and Soul such a compelling film? The answer seems to be twofold. First there is the subject matter. Diana and Kathy are both surprisingly ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Diana drives their lift equipped van and performs personal care duties for Kathy, and through the use of her Pathfinder communication device Kathy writes elegant words spoken electronically. The two also own their own home in a nice upper-middleclass Springfield neighborhood. They are tireless advocates who have traveled as far as Washington DC to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

Secondly is Elliott’s self proclaimed “edgy” style of filmmaking. Kathy and Diana’s unique 37-year relationship is captured in a manor that endures the viewer, but never crosses the line into sentimentality. Elliott holds her subjects in high esteem, and viewers leave feeling the same. There is absolutely no room for pity in Elliott’s camera lens. Instead she fills it with respect and integrity.