Intelligent Lives – a wide spectrum of courage

Courtesy photo A poster promoting filmmaker Dan Habib’s newest film, ‘Intelligent Lives.’

“I wanted you to see what real courage is…It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

-Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

When Atticus Finch says these words, he is explaining to his daughter, Scout, why he took on the challenge of defending a black man when he knew he would lose the case. Sometimes adversity brings with it unexpected gifts, but only if you see them. Perception is everything, as Atticus Finch knew, and as Concord-based award-winning photographer and filmmaker Dan Habib knows in his bones. Habib, filmmaker for the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disabilities, recently released his newest film, Intelligent Lives.

Habib never thought he would transition from photographer to filmmaker, but his son, Samuel, spurred him beyond his own expectations. That is, Samuel, who at age 3, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. As Habib watched his son deal with the world inside an impaired body, he knew he needed to capture Samuel-his sparkling, joyful personality trapped inside a body with severe physical disabilities-on film, as he was growing. Habib worked on the film from 2004-07, during Samuel’s elementary school years.

“My 2008 documentary film ‘Including Samuel,’ focuses on Samuel’s elementary school years, and our family’s efforts to include him in every aspect of our community. On the little league team. In school theater. And most importantly, in the classroom,” observed Habib in a recent interview at Gibson’s bookstore in Concord.

Including Samuel not only received wide acclaim, Habib received the unexpected gift of a wide cross-cultural audience, so much so that he was approached individually by people offering to translate the film into other languages-17 different languages.

Habib: “At first, as I looked at Samuel, I saw obstacles and burdens. Now, I see intensity, determination, effort, power, and beauty. Samuel has taught me about patience, about guarded assumptions, about the error of pre-judging the capabilities of another person.”

In the film, Betsy Habib beautifully captured the tendency of society and those without evident disabilities to prejudge another, observing, “You cannot simplify my son into a wheelchair. He is just as complex as any other person.”

In 2008, as a result of the widespread interest generated by Including Samuel, Associate Director of the UNH Institute on Disabilities Mary Schuch pitched the idea that Habib could use film to transform public perception about people with disabilities.

In their reactions to Including Samuel, audiences voiced to Habib concern about the less visible issue of emotional and behavioral disability. As a result, his next film, “Who Cares About Kelsey?” followed a young woman struggling to graduate from high school, despite her struggles with family and past sexual abuse. Then one day, as Habib was watching his son Samuel, now in high school, communicate with his principal, recently diagnosed with ALS, Habib found his next subject. “Mr. Connelly Has ALS” chronicles the journey of a healthy, wildly popular principal of Concord High School before, and after he was diagnosed with ALS.

But what about the general issue of intelligence? What about what, back in the 1950s, was referred to as “mental retardation”? Who is intelligent? What is intelligence?

Habib: “Intellectual disability is the holy grail of disability. What about students who have the intellectual disability label? Can they be fully included in the classroom? Go to college? Can they work? Can they marry? As I explored this topic, I found that only 17 percent of students with disabilities are included in regular education. Just 40 percent will graduate from high school. Of 6.5 million Americans with intellectual disability, barely 15 percent are employed. The intellectual disability label still carries the same implication we experienced decades before.”

Habib’s newest film, “Intelligent Lives,” explodes those labels, interweaving stories of three people with intellectual disabilities: Micah, Naieer, and Naomie. If they had been born in the first half of the 20th century, their parents would have been counselled to institutionalize them. As recently as 1975, they would not have had access to a public education.

Instead, Micah, born in 1984, is a student at Syracuse University with a vibrant social life, a job co-teaching university classes, and a sophisticated grasp of social media, yet has an IQ of 40. Naieer, born in 1999, is a talented visual artist, immersed in general education and basketball games at a public high school in Dorchester, anticipating going to college to study art. Naomie sings and dances in her Providence, Rhode Island, Creole church and is working towards her first paid job in a beauty parlor.

Habib’s films ask us all to rethink our own assumptions about disability and intelligence. What is ability and disability? My husband suffered a stroke more than a decade ago; the first symptom was difficulty speaking. It turns out that a disability, the fact that he had trouble reading as a youty, actually helped him fully recover his speech because his brain had already adapted to using both hemispheres to help him read. I did not discover my son Gabe was dyslexic until he was 24.

In her book Upside Down Brilliance-The Visual-Spatial Leaner, author Linda Kreger Silverman described Gabe-intelligent and gifted in many difficult subjects and yet he struggled with reading. The book helped me rethink-and actually reverse my thinking about-what constitutes ability and disability.

As I watched Intelligent Lives-and Habib’s other films-I was struck by the fact that we must not only rethink our measuring gauge for intelligence, but also factor in the issue of character-otherwise described as “grit.” In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough draws on the research of math teacher-psychologist Angela Duckworth about the role of self-control and grit-the relentless work ethic sustained towards a long-term goal-and its impact on success.

Duckworth changed her view of school reform: “The problem, I think, is not only the schools, but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying-but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

Nowhere is character more evident than in Habib’s films. No one understands better how learning can be daunting, exhausting, discouraging and seemingly impossible than Samuel, Kelsey, Mr. Connolly, Micah, Naieer, and Naomie. Each takes great risks, delves into the unknown parts of themselves, faces obstacles head-on, and deals with the anxiety of trying new things without knowing if they can accomplish them or not. In fact, we can all learn something about risk-taking and courage by watching Intelligent Lives.

Habib: “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.” As Keith Jones, also a man with cerebral palsy, stated, “Never let anybody tell you about you.”

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

To view a trailer or host a screening of Intelligent Lives, go to: www.intelligentlives.org.

Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, biographer and poet. Contact her at quincysquill@nashuatelegraph.com or quincy@quincywhitney.com.