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“Intelligent Lives” documentary screening highlights educational needs of students with intellectual disabilities

on October 11, 2019

On Monday evening, parents, students and providers of special needs education in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) gathered at the Cole Campus to watch the premiere of Intelligent Lives, a documentary by filmmaker Dan Habib. “This movie is a tool to transform and change the label of intellectual disability from a life sentence of isolation,” he said as he spoke from New York in a recorded message to the viewing audience.

Parents and educators watched attentively as the documentary highlighted challenges faced by the many children who are affected by intellectual disabilities. According to the movie’s narrator, Chris Cooper, the world has approximately 6 million children with these kinds of disabilities, including his quadriplegic son, who has cerebral palsy and was born ten weeks premature, which contributed to his inability to speak.

This movie follows three people. Naomie, 25, graduated from a Rhode Island vocational program with a certificate in jewelry assembly. She now works at the state capital building and continues to attend a beauty school with aspirations of supporting herself financially. Naomie’s push to join the workforce coincides with a 2014 US Department of Justice directive through which the department addressed the rights of people with disabilities. The department directed that all people with disabilities should receive state-funded employment in the integrated community rather than in segregated “sheltered” workshops that are only for people with disabilities.

Micah, 35, overcame the odds to become a teaching assistant at Syracuse University, where he co-teaches classes in inclusive education and disability studies. Among his many achievements, in May, 2014, Micah was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

And Naieer, 17, goes to a Massachusetts public high school. He has serious communication challenges and expresses his mind through visual art. Naieer’s artwork, which includes paintings and drawings, has been exhibited in shows across the globe. 

The co-stars in the documentary are an inspiration not only to their peers but to the general population, Habib said. “The incredible–undeniable– achievements of Naomie, Niaeer, Micah, and Jesse, who is about to finish his high school with straight As, gives us the opportunity to look beyond the antiquated notions of society on how children with learning disabilities are treated,” he said.

Speaking in the documentary about why he felt compelled to help put together Intelligent Lives, Cooper spoke about his son. “Our son Jesse has cerebral palsy. When he was 4, a neurologist told us, our son will never be intellectually normal. We fought to have Jesse included in general education,” he said. Cooper went on to explain how he and his wife faced an uphill task when their son’s time to enroll in school came. He criticized the IQ tests children must take, saying they are not designed to consider children who were born with learning disabilities. For example, he said, his son’s test included be asked to dust the shelves, something he physically could not do.

As the audience took a moment after the screening to discuss the highlights of the movie, Neena Bhathal, the Cole Campus director, said to the attentive audience, “Having watched the strides made by either of the three co-stars, parents and students seated here, we have a task to spread the news and fight the notion that intellectually challenged children are not disabled.”

Many parents vowed to push the limits as they strive to see their children thrive. “I will no longer look at my daughter as someone who needs help. She’s a capable human being and am going to fight for her,” said Analia Lee, a parent of a child who attends Cole.

Intelligent Lives is currently available for purchase online for educators and other groups who would like to host a screening. It will also air on PBS in two weeks on various stations.

Jennifer Holmes, a special needs educator, drove all the way from San Leandro after seeing a flier about the screening on one of her friend’s Facebook feeds. She said she had never seen a documentary so comprehensive in highlighting the challenges of these children. “In my 28 years as a special needs educator, this is the best production. I am going to buy a special screening for the San Leandro area,” she said.

This story was updated on October 15 to correct the information about Jennifer Holmes’ location.

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