‘Intelligent Lives’ screening brings awareness to intellectual disabilities

Actor Chris Cooper — whose son, Jesse, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy — narrated “Intelligent Lives” to share his story and raise awareness for intellectual disabilities. Photo courtesy of Like Right Now Films

Iman Mekonen, Contributing Writer

Dan Habib. Photo courtesy of Like Right Now Films

Self-determination, or taking initiative to control a set of goals, is often taken for granted. Having an intellectual disability can create issues with self-determination as well as other elements of independence that can place individuals in a segregated learning environment.

The VCU School of Social Work hosted a screening and discussion of the film “Intelligent Lives” that addresses self-determination and disability March 27 in the Rams Lounge of the University Student Commons.

“Intelligent Lives” was created by filmmaker Dan Habib, who is the father of a son with cerebral palsy. Chris Cooper, an actor and advocate for inclusive education, narrates the film. Cooper’s son, Jesse, had cerebral palsy and epilepsy and died in 2005.

“Disability is really all around us,” said Matthew Bogenschutz, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work who hosted the event. “One of our big focal points is around social injustices around disability. We also want to get into issues of self-determination and to follow up to the films theme of challenging conceptualizations of intelligence.”

The film is centered around three individuals: Micah Fialka Feldman, Naomie Monplaisir and  Naieer Shaheed. It documents their journeys advancing in the workplace and their educational experiences while overcoming the stigma surrounding individuals with disabilities.

It also brings awareness to disabled people’s oppression and creates a discussion on inclusivity.

“We’re also really concerned with oppressed and marginalized populations and people with disabilities are also among those populations,” Bogenschutz said. “They get a little less attention than the other populations do, so this was a really good opportunity to illuminate the experiences of people with disabilities.”

The film also provided a background to the history of the ramifications of IQ tests for disabled people. Once an individual takes an IQ test to measure intelligence, it’s often hard to get out of the label the test score puts on a person.

“A decision that’s based on IQ tests early in life can determine a person’s path for the rest of their life,” Bogenschutz said. “That early tracking is really hard to get out of, and people develop over time.”

Many have criticized IQ tests for being culturally or socio-economically biased.

“They’re focused on white, middle class individuals, so we see big disparities,” Bogenschutz said. “African Americans are diagnosed with intellectual disabilities far more than white people.”

One in four African American adults has a disability, compared to one in five white American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

IQ tests are used as a mechanism to classify an individual into a category on the spectrum of intelligence. The tests can also favor people who are exposed to certain information because of their culture or socioeconomic status, which can sway test results.

“Once the IQ test determines you in a certain place, it really determines the course of your life,” Bogenschutz said. “This plays out in the tracking of kids from a really young age. It’s predeterministic. Once you get tracked in special education, that’s pretty much a life.”

People with disabilities belong to a minority group that intersects with all other groups such as religion, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. One-fourth of adult U.S. citizens are disabled, according to the CDC.

“It makes it the single largest minority group in America and around the world,” said Ian Kunkes, co-chair of VCU’s Transforming Accessibility Initiative.

A discussion held after the showing included conversations on how students in the School of Social Work can help address the issue.

“Thinking back to what do we do to make our community, school and society more welcoming toward individuals with disabilities, it’s recognizing that a disability is one aspect of who they are, just like their hair color, their ethnicity,” Kunkes said. “It’s a piece of it, but you shouldn’t focus on it or define someone that way.”

To learn more about “Intelligent Lives” and how to host a screening, visit IntelligentLives.org.

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