Documentary Review: Re-examining disability through the lens of “Intelligent Lives”

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One of the great sea changes in American culture over the past 60 years has been in attitudes toward and treatment of the mentally disabled.

From the gradual abandonment of “labeling” via outmoded IQ tests and “warehousing” people we used to call “feeble minded” to mainstreaming into schools, daily life, from the Special Olympics and the world-altering Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s a Civil Rights revolution that’s happened almost under the culture’s radar.

“Intelligent Lives” celebrates the fruits of this change in the more enlightened corners of America. The film introduces us to a special needs artist in Boston with dreams of art school and college, a Rhode Island woman of Haitian descent being prepared for a more independent life that includes her first real job in a hair salon and a graduate of InclusiveU at Syracuse University who has become an advocate for the disabled.

Oscar winner Chris Cooper (“The Orchid Thief”) talks with great passion about his son, Jesse, born with cerebral palsy that left him mute, suffering from quadriplegia.

“The neurologist told us, in front of our son, that he would never be intellectually normal and that we should think of having another child.”

The Coopers became tireless advocates for including the disabled in general education, dedicating increased resources that would grant access to computers (allowing Jesse to communicate, became an A student and a poet) and far wider horizons for kids like Jesse.

Cooper introduces the film and quickly transitions to an attack on the century-old practice of IQ testing, “misguided and false measurements of worth.”

When the outdated Stanford Binet IQ test was built on “antiquated questions” — “Do you dust a dresser?” — how accurate can it be, for starters?

Whatever the original purposes of the test, it has been used historically to discriminate against non-native English speakers (at Ellis Island), African Americans and other minorities.

“The IQ test told me nothing about my child’s potential,” Cooper declares. “Can any attempt to measure intelligence predict a person’s value or ability to contribute meaningfully to the world?”

As the United States comes to realize it is throwing away six million potential workers, people with “the ability to contribute meaningfully to the world,” schools such as Henderson School in Boston, an “inclusion” school, abandon IQ tests and settle in for the long, hard, hands-on and labor intensive work of preparing people like Naieer, a gifted painter, for a productive and more independent life.

Rhode Islander Naomie was institutionalized in what amounted to a Dickensian “workhouse” during her teens, until the state realized that the operators weren’t doing much more than grossly underpay for simple, manual labor that wasn’t helping students grow and prep for the outside world. We meet her as she takes the first steps — co-running a coffee cart in the state capital building — towards building a self-supporting life.

And wee Micah as he takes disabilities studies courses at Syracuse University, living in an assisted living environment and dabbling in OKCupid, a young man given the chance, for the first time, to think about the future.

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We’re also introduced to several progressive educators, people who demonstrate the patience of those who know how long the journey is, from first classes in childhood to the college and post-graduate potential life Micah can see before him.

“Intelligence looks different on everybody,” one teacher says.

Cooper’s place in the film is talking about his son’s experiences (Jesse eventually died, but not without making a mark) and giving us the history of IQ tests and the shifts in America’s attitudes toward the mentally disabled. America went so far as to dabble in eugenics, sterilizing the “feeble minded” in some states.

The Kennedy Administration, headed by a president and attorney general whose sister, Rosemary, was institutionalized in the 1940s, started the national conversation.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a founder of the Special Olympics.

By 1975, equal opportunities in education were enshrined in law and in 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act with a flourish, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

But in the trenches, the advocacy, protests and lobbying goes on. And the teachers struggle, fretting over Naieer and “erratic” behavior that could cause him trouble should this tall young black man ever encounter the police, worrying about Naomie’s ongoing needs even as Micah’s parents celebrate his college graduation.

“Intelligent Lives” is far from a representative sample of such people — these are exceptions, outliers with access to resources and family support the vast majority of the disabled have fewer opportunities to access. And “introduced” is the right way to characterize everyone we meet in the movie. It’s not much deeper than a superficial introduction.

But as history, “Intelligent Lives” is invaluable at reminding us of the speed of change, once such change is recognized and accepted as necessary. As a journalist, I remember writing stories about non-profits fretting over the expensive and seemingly onerous demands ADA was about to place upon them as it was implemented — access ramps and hearing assistance and braille signage in elevators and elsewhere.

Most of us came to accept these measures as a small price to pay, and those who did became more enlightened, part of a change that broadened our ideas of civil liberties in America and our concept of an inclusive culture.

Those who didn’t found themselves on the wrong side of history.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Chris Cooper, Naomie MonplaisirNaieer Shaheed

Credits:Directed by Dan Habib, script by Dan Habib and Jody Becker. A Right Now Films release.

Running time: 1:11

 

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