Exploring What It Means to Lead "Intelligent Lives"

A local filmmaker teams up with a Hollywood legend to challenge conventional notions about IQ



Dan Habib's work for UNH's Institute on Disability has earned national accolades, including from former President Obama. Courtesy Photo

The task of trying to dismantle lingering stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities — and to convey how those stereotypes can profoundly shape a person’s access to education, to jobs, to a fulfilling life — begins with acknowledging the inherent inadequacy of the very language of the issue itself.

“Even the words, intellectual disability, suggest that you’re intellectually disabled,” says Dan Habib, an award-winning documentarian with UNH’s Institute on Disability. “It’s still a flawed word, a flawed description.”

In his latest film, “Intelligent Lives,” Habib asks audiences to confront how the estimated 6.5 million Americans living with intellectual disabilities are constrained not just by flawed labels — but also by flawed societal approaches to gauging someone’s intellectual aptitude. After tackling the issue of inclusion for people with physical disabilities (told through the lens of his own family) and emotional disabilities, Habib says he wanted to give greater consideration to another often-overlooked population.

“Intelligent Lives” profiles three people with intellectual disabilities: a Syracuse University lecturer, an aspiring artist and a woman trying to navigate her place in the workforce. Their stories are proof, Habib says, that “people with disabilities may express their intelligence in very different ways.”

Habib gets help amplifying this message from Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper (known for his roles in “Adaptation,” among others), who serves as the film’s narrator. Cooper and his wife, Marianne Leone Cooper, consulted on the film and share how they fought to ensure their late son, Jesse, was not excluded from school and other opportunities due to his cerebral palsy.

“The IQ test told us nothing about Jesse’s potential, about who he was as a person,” Cooper muses in the movie. “Can any attempt to measure intelligence predict a person’s value or potential to contribute meaningfully to the world?”

By elevating a trio of people who are defying expectations about what they could meaningfully contribute to the world, Habib hopes to start a conversation about how to envision more inclusive policies and pathways for everyone, regardless of IQ.

“The film was an attempt to really look at and deconstruct how we perceive intelligence in our society,” Habib says. “But also to show what would a new paradigm look like for seeing intelligence much more broadly?”

The film has been making the rounds on the conference circuit but is prepping for a wider release soon. A local premiere is slated for May 14 at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, with Chris and Marianne Cooper, plus other stars from the film, in attendance.

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