Author Q&A: Dan Habib

Man writing in journal

What motivates you to produce films about the challenges and benefits of inclusion?

Dan Habib

My son Samuel and his disability were the driving motivations for my first film, Including Samuel, and he continues to be the motivation for my work every day.  Until schools are welcoming for all kids—even those with complex disabilities—Samuel and other students with disabilities will never have equal opportunities in society. I truly believe it is the greatest civil and human rights struggle of the 21st century.  A child’s access or lack of access to a quality, inclusive education can make or break their future opportunities. But creating a truly inclusive educational environment is not easy, so films about education need to be complex and balanced.

I don’t make films that prescribe easy solutions, because there are none. But I do think my films capture evidence-based practices in action in real schools, through the eyes and lives of educators, students, and families. I’d consider myself an inclusion advocate, but with a journalist’s approach to making honest films that don’t sugarcoat the complexity of the issues.

How do you choose the subjects for your documentaries?

I love the medium of documentary film because I get to take people deep into the lives of trailblazers that they might otherwise never meet.  I always start with some central questions I want to explore, and then I do a lot of research to find people that answer those questions through their lived experiences.  For my current documentary, Intelligent Lives, I explore a central question, which is posed early in the film by narrator and Academy award-winning actor Chris Cooper. He asks, “Can any attempt to measure intelligence predict a person’s value, or ability to contribute meaningfully to the world?”

The label of “intellectual disability,” though better than its predecessors (“mentally retarded,” “feeble minded”), is still problematic.

What are we suggesting when we say that someone’s intellect is disabled?

As I did exploratory research on the topic, I found that only 17 percent of students with intellectual disabilities are included in regular education. Just 40 percent will graduate from high school. And of the 6.5 million Americans with intellectual disability, barely 15 percent are employed.

There is not another group of Americans that are as systematically segregated and underestimated in modern day society.

Naieer painting

I then researched and found three central subjects that would address that question in three different arenas: Naieer (high school), Micah (college) and Naomie (the workforce). These three people raised my own awareness and appreciation for the wide range of possibilities for people with a label of intellectual disability.  Naieer’s story informs viewers that that students with intellectual disability and autism can be fully included in high school. Micah’s story leads people to know that there are thousands of college students with intellectual disabilities attending nearly 300 universities and colleges across the U.S.  And Naomie’s story illustrates that although the employment rate for people with intellectual disabilities is just 15%, employers who have made a commitment to interviewing and hiring more people with disabilities say the people they hire have become some of their most hard working and reliable employees.

By meeting Micah, Naomie and Naieer, Intelligent Lives will show millions of viewers the power of opportunity and high expectations.

Which of your many works is a favorite success story?  Why?

I’ve filmed so many amazing people, so there there are many success stories.  But I’ll focus on the success stories that have continued to unfold for Naieer, Naomie and Micah since Intelligent Lives was first released last year.

Naieer is now taking college classes, including an art class he recently took at Mass College of Art!  Like my son Samuel, he also continues to receive transition supports from his school. He’s been frustrated by the lack of employment opportunities, but he’s about to start professional training in another one of his passions – cooking – and he hopes that will help him break into the restaurant industry. We sell prints of two of his paintings on our website, and all proceeds from those art sales go to the art program at his Henderson high school.

Naomie working at Empire Beauty School

Naomie is still working at Empire Beauty School and loving it. Her brother Steve continues to be a central part of her life. Steve, who has a college degree in business, has a job he loves as a direct support professional for other people with disabilities.

Micah is co-teaching two classes at Syracuse (for pay), and has a vibrant social life.  He volunteers at Planned Parenthood and also helps mentor students entering the Inclusive U program at Syracuse.  He continues to convene his Circle of Support at Syracuse to help him work towards his personal and professional goals.

How does your work serve as a catalyst to transform our society into a more inclusive environment?  

My “Inclusive Communities” project at the Institute on Disability at UNH is part of our non-profit organization, and my work is funded in large part through grants. So we make sure to track the measurable impact from the films and the associated educational materials we create for each project.  We surveyed thousands of people who saw INTELLIGENT LIVES, and the results have been affirming:

  • 98% of viewers indicated that INTELLIGENT LIVES helped them understand the concept of “presuming competence” —that everyone has talents and is a full and valuable participant in society.
  • 97% of viewers indicated that INTELLIGENT LIVES helped them understand that intelligence cannot always be measured, such as social/emotional intelligence, artistic intelligence, etc.
  • 88% of viewers indicated that seeing INTELLIGENT LIVES made them more likely to interview and/or hire a young adult with a disability for a part-time or full-time job.

We also collect anecdotal examples of impact from film screenings. One moment stands out.  Film “star” Naieer was part of the post-film panel at the premiere in my hometown, Concord, NH.  Naieer, who has ASD, stood before 500 people in an elegant performing arts center working so hard to answer questions. At one point, for a full minute, the entire audience waited for him to give his answer in a tightly constructed sentence. I don’t honestly remember what he said. What I remember was the unconditional feeling in that room that whatever Naieer had to say was worth waiting for. And that it was not Naieer’s problem that he had trouble getting the words out – it was society’s problem that we are typically so impatient in our communication.   Oh, and after the screening Naieer had an exhibit of his paintings and sold out in about 20 minutes, walking away with about $2000 and a huge smile!

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges still facing inclusion today?   

Micah walking to class in "Intelligent Lives"

Today, inclusion is still happening inconsistently throughout the country. It varies state-to-state, town-to-town and classroom-to-classroom. Joe Petner of the Haggerty School (featured in my film Including Samuel) says that we should not have to reinvent inclusion every time we try it; that for inclusion to be successful, it has to be a transferable model, not dependent on extraordinary leadership or funding. He says the most important factor in making inclusion work well is a community’s commitment to the spirit of inclusion; the details will fall into place if that overall commitment is there. I do think leadership at the administrative level is critical to making sure teachers have the training and planning time they need to be successful.

What are some ways you address those challenges in your films? 

Dan Habib
Filmmaker Dan Habib of the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability.

I’ll use my latest project, Intelligent Lives, as an example of how I approach these issues from the start of the process. I was motivated to make a film that focused on young adults transitioning from high school into college and career largely because my own son Samuel is now in his late teen years, and is figuring out how he wants to transition into adulthood.  Samuel is a recent high school graduate, had a job last summer, and is taking – and passing – college classes.

But people often talk to Samuel like he’s five-years-old, because he doesn’t fit their vision of what it means to be “intelligent.” He has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and a communication device. Chris and Marianne Cooper, key partners on this film, had the same experience with their son Jesse.

Educators, parents, and disability rights leaders have told me similar anecdotes, convincing me that this narrow perception of what it means to be “intelligent” may be the single greatest barrier for people with disabilities.

What if I could make a film that blew up the notion that there was any way to quantify this amorphous thing we call “intelligence”?

I’m not a person with a disability, so I don’t claim to speak for people with disabilities. But I can amplify the perspectives of advocates through my films and events.  I’ve tried to commit to the standard of “nothing about us without us” as much as possible for the rollout of this film, so we’ve recruited dozens of youth with disabilities to take part in post-film discussions (and many community and university screening hosts have done the same without my involvement).  To see the power and confidence that comes from a young adult with a disability sharing their life experiences with a room packed with strangers has, for me, been the most moving part of our year-long screening tour.

About the Author

Dan Habib, the director/producer of Intelligent Lives, is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including Samuel, Who Cares About Kelsey?, Mr. Connolly Has ALS and many other films.  Habib’s films have been featured in dozens of film festivals, broadcast internationally, nominated for Emmy awards and translated into 17 languages for worldwide distribution. Habib is a filmmaker at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability.

Habib gave a widely viewed TEDx talk, “Disabling Segregation,” received the Champion of Human and Civil Rights Award from the NEA, and the Justice for All Grassroots Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities.  In 2014, Habib was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. Habib and his wife, Betsy McNamara, live in Concord, NH, with their sons Isaiah, 23, and Samuel, 19.

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