Ladonna Freidheim

Ladonna Freidheim has been advocating for players with disabilities for years.

Through his nonprofit, ReinventAbility, he teaches people to dance in wheelchairs. He helps students, dancers and veterans, among others.

Her advocacy is now reaching a fever pitch DisFest — an inaugural free festival taking place this Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center to celebrate performers with disabilities

He wants the public to know that people with disabilities are not that different from what we think.

“It's one thing to read (it) in a book, then there's really a feeling in your heart that you know, no matter what happens, it's totally fine,” Freidheim said.

“Disability is not the end of life; this is the start of a new version of your life,” he said.

Ladonna Freidheim

Courtesy of Fresh Lens via Ladonna Freidheim

The festival features family-oriented dance performances, exhibitions by visual artists, musical performances, theatrical plays and short documentaries.

In one interactive exhibit, guests cut medical X-ray film into pieces and assembled them into works of art. That can be “cathartic” because people with disabilities sometimes feel “tortured” by the healthcare industry, he said.

Freidheim founded ReinventAbility in 2014, and runs weekly dance classes and workshops at the Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital. The group's reach later expanded to Chicago Public Schools, Columbia College Chicago, Joffrey Academy and other institutions.

Freidheim, 55, was born on the South Shore, attended elementary school in Beverly and graduated from St. Louis. Ignatius College Prep. He lives in the South Loop and has a 16 year old daughter.

As a teenager, Freidheim danced as a ballerina at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. But a degenerative disease sent him to surgery. Doctors put him on a leg brace, and he went into rehab in college with aspiring Paralympic athletes.

He remembers walking down the street with his paralyzed friend and hearing someone mutter, “If that happens to me, just kill me.” Friedheim was inspired.

“I don't want people to think that way,” he said. “I want people to see that inclusion isn't difficult and scary. Because, look, here it is, and not hard and scary.”

As the doctor put him on a leg brace, he considered how he could get back to dancing. Maybe he could take a low level course and adapt to it, he thought. But the instructor told him that he couldn't dance.

“They said, no, it would be too sad for the other dancers to see you so lame,” she recalls.

Instead, she collaborates with athletes in rehab who want to dance in a club but don't know how to be in a wheelchair. “They taught me wheelchair basketball and I taught them chair dancing,” he says.

After college, he worked as an occupational therapist at CPS, helping children with disabilities.

Screenshot of the short dance film “A Memory Of Joy.”

The dance performance at DisFest will be similar to the one seen here, screenshots from the short dance film “A Memory Of Joy.”

Courtesy of Liz Sung Productions through Ladonna Freeideim

In 2006, Freidheim met his mentor, who inspired him to return to dancing. Alana Wallace runs a mixed-ability dance company in Chicago, Dance>Detour, and recruited Freidheim as a replacement for someone with braces.

“He taught me to dance in my wheelchair and it brought a joy of movement and freedom I haven't felt in a long time,” she says.

He hopes DisFest spreads that awareness.

“There are a lot of people out there who don't know it exists,” said Freidheim. “For me, there is nowhere to go. I don't want people to feel isolated. When disability affects your life, your family, I want people to know we are here.”

DisFest takes place Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. Live performances are scheduled from 1.30pm to 5.30pm

July is Disability Pride Month.

Chicago Disability Pride Parade from 11:00am Saturday at 401 S. Plymouth Ct. From there, the march continued west on Van Buren, north on Dearborn, ending at Daley Plaza.