You might imagine personal projects are the easiest to embark upon. More often than not though, it’s these very undertakings that challenge people the most, forcing us to look long and hard at how we relate to the world around us. Such is the case with Walk On, a documentary film that actor, writer, producer, and former casting director Joseph Kibler made about his own journey training to walk more than six miles in the annual Los Angeles AIDS Walk — a feat all the more impressive once you realize that the now 26-year-old Kibler has been using a wheelchair most of his life.
As a child, Kibler believed that it was cerebral palsy that led to a series of body casts, medications, specialist visits, and finally a wheelchair. But when he turned 12, his physician let it slip that it was being born with HIV that led to his disabilities. He wasn’t expected to live, much less walk at the time; his mother didn’t even know she was positive until after Kibler and his twin brother (who died as an infant) were diagnosed.
Today, Kibler is part inspirational activist, part Hollywood up-and-comer — his most recent guest spot was on CSI: Cyber alongside actress Patricia Arquette — who exhibits the same spirit that keeps viewers cheering him on in Walk On. The award-winning doc introduces us to Kibler’s friends, including quadriplegic comedian Jay Cramer, Paralympic amputee sprinter Katy Sullivan, and Purple Heart recipient-turned-producer LyVell Gipson.
Not bad for what was originally just going to be a public service announcement for AIDS Walk, before Kibler decided to flip the script and let the cameras into his life to try and educate the world on what it is really like living with HIV and other disabilities.
“It didn’t take long for it to evolve and eventually become the biggest thing I’ve ever been able to be a part of,” Kibler said. “Mark [Bashian] came on as director and I focused my energy on being the subject. In those first few production meetings we discussed my private life and how I needed to get used to it not existing. We would delve into every aspect. Not to make this the Joseph Kibler show, but because that was truly the only way to be fair to our audience. If I could be brutally honest about my life and my struggles, hopefully it would allow others to open up, to speak out, and to grow.”
He admitted, “Walk On probably went through as many versions as I have drug trials, but over time we were able to find a balance… It is something I am immensely proud of. Mark and I spent countless hours carefully deciding each scene and what it meant and why it was important. We weren’t being paid to do it; in fact, it was quite the opposite. This film wouldn’t have been made without the support of many people, but most of all, not without the generosity of time, creativity, and financial backing of its director.”
Though the film (produced by the likes of Steve Carell, Alfred Molina, and Emma Thompson) has made him the public face of multiple marginalized communities, Kibler is wary of representing any narrative that isn’t his own.
“I first started out with this idea that I was a lone soldier marching out to fight the battle for diversity, inclusion, and the end to HIV and disability stigma,” he admitted. “I felt that way because just like those who don’t understand HIV, I was uneducated on the subject of my own community. The fact is, there are plenty of people fighting to have their voices heard. If I truly tried to speak for every single person, I wouldn’t be heard by anyone.”
But, he insisted, “I don’t have to, because by just sharing my story and experiences, someone will relate to it. Most of us have dealt with many of the same struggles and stigmas.”
He’s understanding, encouraging people with HIV to let those who might perpetuate stigma, or those who aren’t informed about the virus, to “learn without feeling foolish or stupid. Often people are afraid to ask me questions because it will make them seem uneducated. It saddens me that some people would rather live in the dark about something if it keeps them from being embarrassed. Whether it be because of the school we went to, the communities we are a part of, or our family structure, we are the product of our environments. If HIV wasn’t something [that was talked] about, it wasn’t talked about. So now it’s a matter of talking about it.”
And with Walk On, which toured the film festival circuit and is now being shown in schools across the country, Kibler is starting the conversation. He hopes this conversation will empower others, regardless of their HIV status. Now he’s got multiple Hollywood projects in development, and is getting kudos for a groundbreaking LA Metro ad he starred in as well.
“Whether or not we want to admit it, being marginalized, placed in a box where we are told what we can and can’t do, is actually the best thing that could ever happen to us,” he said. “We are constantly being challenged. We have to push back and fight for every little thing we have. Every inch of success feels like yards. So if you don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against, talked down to, been told no, then you’re missing out on the most rewarding experience of proving every single one of them wrong.”