Filmmaker Dan Habib addressed the importance of creating unconditionally inclusive environments for students with intellectual disabilities, during Tuesday’s Honors Colloquium.

Habib’s lecture contributed to this year’s colloquium series entitled “Challenging Expectations: Disability in the 21st Century.”

Habib is a filmmaker and project director at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. He has pioneered numerous award winning documentaries which focus on social justice and inclusive education for disabled individuals. 

In 2012, Habib received the Champion of Human and Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association. He was later appointed by former president Barack Obama to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. His service on this committee promoted initiatives to ensure inclusion and autonomy for the intellectually disabled community. 

Since the birth of his son Samuel, Habib has experienced the uneasiness faced by millions of families with disabled children. He explained that neurologists detected a mitochondrial disorder as Sam struggled to reach developmental milestones.

“[The diagnosis] created this underlying sense of uncertainty for our family,” Habib said. “How in the world could we imagine Samuel going to school, or going to college, or being with friends if he couldn’t hold a pencil or run outside? How would we navigate all the health issues we were dealing with because of Samuel’s underlying disability? It was a really devastating time for us.”

To manage this uncertainty, Habib and his family enrolled in leadership training which helped them determine a goal: for individuals with a disability, like Sam, to be guaranteed a sense of belonging. According to Habib, one pivotal factor to assisting disabled students in achieving self-assurance is inclusive education. 

Individuals who are included in typical learning environments are more likely to experience a plethora of benefits as noted by Habib, including better communication skills, wider social networks and meaningful employment opportunities. Habib also emphasized that there is no scientific evidence proclaiming that segregating disabled students can satisfy similar learning outcomes. 

These findings led Habib to develop his most recent film entitled “Intelligent Lives.” In this documentary, Habib contended that with a new paradigm for human value and intelligence, society can dismantle systematic segregation of the disabled community. 

The history of limited determination of intelligence, as stated by Habib, is still prevalent in this day and age. For hundreds of years, society has embraced neurotypical individuals and excluded neurodivergent ones. IQ testing, which is the most common predictor of intelligence used in the United States, can be biased and inaccurate. He claimed that the common perceptions of intelligence are toxic in presupposing an individual’s potential.

“How can we change the way our systems of education and employment work? That’s a tall task and I won’t achieve that on my own, but I can amplify some really powerful things that are already happening in society through the medium of film,” he said. “I can show how creative use of technology, universal high expectations and a more broad view of intelligence can have such an impact.”

“Intelligent Lives” shows how disabled students are the preeminent leaders in shifting the paradigm. Habib showcased many clips from his documentary which underscore the vitality of independence and inclusion in the lives of disabled people. According to Habib, young adults with disabilities can better unlock their potential if others push their expectations rather than assuming what the students are capable of. While there is a time and a place for specialized consideration, Habib believes that educators and families must support their students in reaching outside of their comfort zone. 

 Habib believes that a change will come as a result of natural support from educators, family members and the immediate community. Channeling the strengths and aptitudes of a disabled student could be a more beneficial approach, according to Habib.

“I think that another really major theme around educational issues is strength based education, strength-based [Individualized Education Program] development, strength based approaches to education,” Habib said. “So much of school is identifying a student’s weaknesses and trying to get them to fix these weaknesses. Why not focus more on the strengths, and really let those strengths blossom?”

Habib stressed the importance of interdependence in the lives of disabled individuals. By assembling a collaborative group to assist in goal setting and success management, students with intellectual disabilities will be exposed to innovative ways of finding connections and eventually reaching employment. Habib’s overarching message was that broadening the common understanding of intelligence can help the disabled community in learning without restrictions or judgement. An inclusive classroom and work environment, as Habib said, will nurture the strengths of individuals and empower them to defy the odds. 

In his closing remarks, Habib revisited the main idea questioned in “Intelligent Lives” by narrator Chris Cooper: can any attempt to measure intelligence predict a person’s value, or ability to contribute meaningfully to the world? On his Intelligent Lives website, Habib offers resources which confront this question and aim to assist those with intellectual disabilities through positive inclusion.