Documentary film ‘Intelligent Lives’ views disability and capability in a new light

Dab Habib/Courtesy

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“The least dangerous assumption you can make about someone is that they are competent,” said producer and director Dan Habib at the screening of his documentary, “Intelligent Lives.”  “When you encounter people who have any kind of difference, just presume that high level of competence … be it in college, in working, in relationships, in friendships. That’s the best starting point. Then, if they need some level of accommodation or need a certain way of communicating, you learn that and you figure that out.”

“Intelligent Lives,” which screened at Ed Roberts Campus on Thursday, tackles perceptions of intelligence and inclusion through the sensitive portrayal of the lives of three disabled individuals: Micah, Naieer, and Naomie. Through watching their lives, the audience is able to view (dis)ability and capability in a whole new light.

Micah has an IQ of 40. Yet, he not only attends Syracuse University but is also co-teaching classes there. The film shows Micah laughing and recounting how he once googled his IQ — a search that indicated that he could not live away from his family or hold down a job. In addition to school, Micah is even taking on the challenges of a romantic relationship.

Naieer has been diagnosed with autism and had limited communication skills when he joined the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion School. During his time there, he turned out to be a skillful visual artist. Naieer is now developing his portfolio and touring art colleges.

Naomie, diagnosed with Down syndrome, attended a school that was closed down in 2014 for forcing students to work for little to no pay. The documentary follows her journey toward employment in cosmetology with the help of a job coach.

The progress of these three individuals toward lives of productivity and meaning is narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper. Cooper brings to the film his own journey with his son Jesse, who had cerebral palsy. The actor recounts how a special education director told him to send Jesse away to a special hospital school based on Jesse’s IQ scores. Jesse’s parents, however, fought for him to be included in general education. Jesse went on to earn straight A’s in high school.

The common factors underlying the stories told in “Intelligent Lives” are the inclusive environments and people that have supported Micah, Naieer and Naomie. Micah, for example, has a monthly support circle in which a group of friends advises him on everything from academics to social life to employment.

In addition to exploring individual narratives, Cooper also narrates the history of the disability rights movement as the larger framework of the documentary. For much of American history, the measure of a person’s worth and potential has been viewed through the narrow lens of the IQ test. This has resulted in appalling abuse of the disabled. U.S. eugenics research in the early and mid-1900s resulted in the sterilization of 60,000 disabled Americans and encouraged Hitler to sterilize and murder thousands of disabled Germans as a precursor to the Holocaust. Mass institutions housing the disabled in the United States were no better than restrictive prisons.

As the documentary notes, 49 of the 50 U.S. states continue to use IQ even today to determine intellectual disability. This is despite research showing that IQ testing is heavily skewed against minorities, as it is influenced by socioeconomic and cultural factors.

“If you don’t understand the history of horrible abuse of people with disabilities, you don’t understand why the modern disability rights, inclusive education and employment movement is so critical,” Habib explained in the post-documentary talk with the audience.

In some ways, progress has already been made in the right direction. The demand for inclusion in education and employment picked up in the 1960s, with UC Berkeley’s own Ed Roberts playing a pivotal role. In 1975, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed, and Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990.

The movement toward inclusion is, however, still very much a work in progress. Even today, as Micah points out in the movie, “the mindset is sending away people with disabilities.”

At its heart, Habib stated after the screening, “Intelligent Lives” is an attempt to “convince people that there are different ways to navigate intelligence and the world of education, employment and relationships.” Habib does this by showcasing people, “who are doing it right, … partly (because of) their own positive thinking and self-determination and partly because of the structures that surround them. There are (some) really wonderfully inclusive, supportive, innovative schools, universities (and) workplaces (out there).” These, he said, are what make inclusion a reality.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jesse Cooper attended community college. In fact, he did not attend community college.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Ed Roberts Campus is part of the UC Berkeley campus. In fact, it is not a part of the UC Berkeley campus.