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Intelligent Lives Director Dan Habib Previews His Documentary on Intellectual Disabilities and Shifting Paradigms [Exclusive]

According to the AAIDD, an intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18. So, if someone has an intellectual disability, what kind of life can they lead? What is to be expected of them? How will they function in society? Award-winning filmmaker Dan Habib shows the rich and rewarding lives three such individuals are making for themselves.

Intelligent Lives is a catalyst to transform the label of intellectual disability from a life sentence of isolation into a life of possibility for the most systematically segregated people in America. The film stars three pioneering young American adults with intellectual disabilities — Micah, Naieer, and Naomie — who challenge perceptions of intelligence as they navigate high school, college and the workforce. Academy Award-winning actor and narrator Chris Cooper contextualizes the lives of these central characters through the emotional personal story of his son Jesse, as the film unpacks the shameful and ongoing track record of intelligence testing in the U.S. Intelligent Lives challenges what it means to be intelligent, and points to a future in which people of all abilities can fully participate in higher education, meaningful employment, and intimate relationships.

I spoke exclusively with director Dan Habib about inclusive education, America’s history of forced sterilization of people with disabilities, hosting a screening for your community and more.

TV GOODNESS: You’ve made a number of award-winning films on disability related topics. What made you want to tackle this topic right now?

Dan Habib: “All my work stems from my experiences with my son, Samuel. My son is in college right now; he just graduated from high school. He also has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair, has a seizure disorder – so he’s a very complicated kid. And even though he graduated from school and is going to college, because he uses a wheelchair he’s often talked to like he’s a 5 year-old or seen as unintelligent.

Five or six years ago I started talking with a lot of people in the field and I’d already done two feature-length documentaries on disability related topics and people said the biggest obstacle to people with disabilities is perceptions of intelligence. This narrow perception we have in our society that intelligence can be measured. If you ask somebody on the street how do we measure intelligence, probably nine out of 10 people would say, ‘Oh, the IQ test.’ So my first challenge was to say there are broader ways to see intelligence.

I had to look back historically and blow up the whole notion that there’s any one way to measure intelligence. In fact, IQ testing has done some really horrible things in this country so first you have to get people to open their minds up to the idea that maybe we can’t measure intelligence. Then you have to show them new paradigms for seeing intelligence and that’s why I had to find the paradigm shifters that are in the film.”

TV GOODNESS: I think a lot of people don’t know all the history behind IQ testing and the horrible ways it was used to keep people back and harm them, so it’s good that’s in this film.

Habib: “If you think about a movement like Black Lives Matter, that movement doesn’t make sense unless you know our country has a history of racism and slavery and segregation by race. If you think about the #MeToo Movement or marriage equality, you wouldn’t understand that if you didn’t know we have a very patriarchal country and there’s been a lot of sexual abuse and harassment of women and gays, of course, were also segregated and excluded.

So, I feel like in order to understand the modern disability rights movement, the effort to include people with disabilities in all aspects of society, education, relationships, employment — you have to understand that we actually forcibly sterilized sixty thousand people in this country because they had an intellectual disability. We institutionalized hundreds of thousands of people because they had a disability. That is a really sordid part of our history and much of it grew out of IQ testing.”

TV GOODNESS: I think it’s easy to forget this horrible history if it’s not immediate, so I also appreciate that you’re reintroducing this to people so, hopefully, we can do better in the future.

Habib: “Yeah and unfortunately, it’s still very much in the present day as well. 49 out of 50 states still use IQ testing to assess students and often that decides where they’re gonna be in school or where they’re not gonna be in school.

I have a family member that teaches in a school district in Florida and she was visiting schools in her district. One district had kids with disabilities all included in regular classes. Another building had kids with disabilities segregated. She said, ‘What’s the difference?’ The Principal said, ‘Oh, well these kids in the segregated setting had a 55 IQ or lower. Those that were in the inclusive classroom had 56 or above,’ and that was it. Just a couple of points on their IQ test completely changed their whole educational path.”

TV GOODNESS: Tell me a little bit about how you found Micah, Naieer and Naomie. I thought they were great. I’d like to hear more about what you were looking for and how you found them.

Habib: “In part now because my own son is 18 and has transitioned into adulthood, I was really interested in the age range of young adults with disabilities transitioning to employment through high school or through college, so I knew I wanted to show 3 stories: 1 at a high school level, 1 at the college level and 1 at employment. Those are also 3 tremendously important arenas in our society that if you’re excluded from, you’re missing out on a lot.

I knew Micah first. I go to Syracuse a fair amount to present my films. They’ve invited me there and Micah’s somebody I met. He’s this really wonderfully outgoing young man with great social skills, very active on social media. He’s got a great circle of friends; he takes university classes at Syracuse. He co-teaches classes at Syracuse. He was given an IQ of 40 when he was a kid, which is considered profoundly intellectually disabled. He’s a paradigm shifter.

Then I wanted to find someone at the high school level. I knew of a high school in Boston called the Henderson School. It’s a public high school in Dorchester. [It’s] a very socioeconomincally and ethnically diverse neighborhood, but they’re a totally inclusive school of kids with all abilities. I meet Naieer there. Naieer is a young man with autism, African-American. He has some trouble speaking; he has some challenging behaviors. He’s a beautiful painter, a really wonderfully warm person, but he can be easily perceived as incapable of being in school because of his language issues. Even as his dad says he’s concerned about how he’ll be perceived by police or by the general public — a tall, black man in society with unpredictable behaviors. So he became a very interesting and complex story for me to tell.

Finally, I wanted to tell the employment story with someone that was transitioning from what’s called a sheltered workshop, which is basically a forced work setting just for people with disabilities, getting paid very little money. Somebody transitioning from that into the paid, integrated employment; a regular job. And I found Naomie Monplaisir in Rhode Island, who was going through that transition and then that became my subject matter.

And then Chris Cooper, of course. I’ve known Chris the actor as a friend for almost ten years. He and his wife Marianne Leone — my wife and I have been friends with because we share the experience of parenting a child with cerebral palsy. He volunteered his time to narrate the historical pieces and also tell the very personal and, I think, emotional and powerful story of their son Jessie.”

TV GOODNESS: It was nice to see all of their stories including Chris Cooper’s. For people who are going to see this film, what do you want them to get out of it?

Habib: “That’s a great question. There’s a lot of things, obviously, filmmakers want people to get out of [their films]. The biggest thing is to see new possibilities for people with disabilities. I think that’s one of the things I love about making movies, is you bring the viewers into people’s lives they would not ordinarily be a part of, or potentially. If you talk to most people, they’d be very surprised that the Micah that I just described, the man with the 40 IQ, if you asked, ‘What do you think a man with a 40 IQ is doing?’ It would be a very narrow picture of this person’s life. If I then said, ‘He’s going to college and he’s teaching college classes and he hangs out with doctoral students and grad students,’ you’d be surprised. [Laughs.]

So I want people to raise their expectations for people with disabilities and then hopefully through our Opening Doors campaign that we’re launching with the film’s release, help create new pathways in everyone’s community for inclusive education K – 12, inclusive higher academic programs and get employers to see people with disabilities as potentially really valuable parts of the workplace. So, when people start shifting those expectations, I will definitely feel like the film’s a success.”

TV GOODNESS: I’m glad you mentioned what people can do after they see the film because I feel like there’s so many truly moving, emotional documentaries where it poses a problem and people want to do something, but they don’t know what.

Habib: “With all my documentaries, we’ve planned social action campaigns or impact campaigns for two years before the film’s release. I work with a great outreach coordinator, Lisa Smithline, who’s out in LA. We have a whole team. So people who go to our website, IntelligentLives.org, there’s a Take Action page that we’re constantly building out.

We’ve got a whole set of educational materials and resources that people can use to help them take the kind of actions to open doors. It’s called the Opening Doors Campaign, is our take action campaign. That is an integral part of the film. I don’t honestly just make films to make films, just to get them into a movie theater. I really want to see them create the catalyst for social change. My first one Including Samuel, was translated into 17 languages and used all over the world as a catalyst for inclusive education and I want to do that with every film, for it to be a catalyst for change.”

TV GOODNESS: Is there anything you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you about?

Habib: “We have a really exciting, new partnership for this film with a company called Gather. Gather, if you’ve heard of it, they do something called theatrical on demand screenings all over the country. So people can actually host screenings in their own community for no charge. All they need to do, on our website, is go to the Host Screening link and they can have it in their local AMC, or Loews or independent theater.

Gather does all the work to get the movie to the theater and the only thing that people need to do on the ground is rally the troops to get enough people to buy tickets so that the screening happens. It might be 30 or 40 tickets, but we coach you through every step of the way. I just want to make sure people know at this point in the film’s release, they can actually host screenings in their own communities all over the country right through our website. And then we’re working right now towards securing a broadcast and video-on-demand. We’re focused right now on having the film shown in theaters and communities across the country.”

Edited for space and content.

Intelligent Lives opens in New York today. Click here for a screening schedule and/or to host a screening in your community.

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