Dan Habib Receives Peek Award for Advancing Conversation Around Disabilities with New Documentary Intelligent Lives

By Kaleigh Stock

In collaboration with Rose Wagner and KUER, the Utah Film Center awarded this year’s Peek Award to filmmaker Dan Habib for positively changing the public’s perceptions of people with disabilities Monday night. The Peek award was created eight years ago by filmmaker Barry Marrow in memory of his dear friend Kim Peek, the man who also inspire Marrow’s award-winning film, Rain Man.

After the award reception, the Utah Film Center showed Habib’s powerful and stirring new documentary, Intelligent Lives. Intelligent Lives showcases the lives of three young adults with intellectual disabilities. In the film, Micah, a 30-year-old with an unbelievably infectious smile, is in the process of getting a non-degree certificate in disabilities studies at Syracuse, and developing a relationship with his new girlfriend, Meghan. Micah has a job and bank accounts, regularly checks in on social media and OKCupid (pre-relationship), and lives on his own. Micah also has an IQ of 40.

Intelligent Lives repeatedly asks the viewer to question assumptions and expectations regarding others’ potentials. One essential thread that runs throughout the film is its head-on challenge of IQ tests. In the film, Syracuse professor James Burn notes, “The IQ test measures a very limited potential of our brains to learn and misses all the other stuff—our sensibility to take context clues from their environment from other people, a person’s desires to engage with other people, and their openness to other relationships. Micah’s got a ton of that.”

The other two stars have their own unique talents and societal contributions. Naieer, a charismatic young black man diagnosed with autism, expresses the emotions he cannot articulate verbally through visual art. A talented and passionate painter, his work was exhibited at the University of Massachusetts, Boston in a collection called “Art for Cultural Inclusion.”

Naomi, an affectionate young Haitian woman diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, is part of a newly redesigned vocational program in Rhode Island. A Justice Department probe determined that the former version of the program had violated students’ civil rights by making them work in workshops for little to no money. Through the new program, Naomi is shown how to network and finds an internship at a local salon.

When near the end of the film we see that Micah has graduated Syracuse and has a job as a college teaching assistant, Naieer is about to start an art program in college (his face lights up in priceless rapture when he hears that the program includes sculpture), and Naomi dances excitedly around the salon, giving out hugs to everyone in sight when she is officially hired as a salon assistant at $12 an hour, it is hard not to get swept up in the emotion of what was just viewed. These are not just improvements in the lives of these young people, but in the lives of every person these young people’s lives touch. With support and love from their respective families and schools, all three of them contribute the most important thing they can to their social circles and society at large: themselves.

In a recent episode of RadioWest, Habib told Doug Fabrizio that one of Micah’s family members had told him that when they had a serious illness, “Micah was the first person to call me, and to say, ‘Can I come visit you? How can I support you?’ How can that be measured?”

In the film, father and actor Chris Cooper, whose own son, Jesse, passed away due to the complications that common with epilepsy, cerebral palsy and severe spastic quadriplegia, asks the audience to think about the many things that cannot be measured by an intelligence test: “Could any intelligence test have predicted the impact our son’s life had on the children who went to school with him? On his best friend Kyle, now a teacher of English language learners who says Jesse taught him how to draw out a world of ideas from each of his students. Or, on Jamie, his middle school girlfriend, who said Jesse motivated her to teach music, helping children to raise their voices and sing. On the parents and teachers who hear his story, and read his poetry, and then determine to fight harder for inclusion.” Intelligent Lives reminds us that there is so much that cannot, and perhaps should not be measured by any test. There is so much more than “IQ” that makes up this thing we call intelligence, and that makes us human.

Intelligent Lives is not all sunshine and roses. It reminds viewers that it was not so far back in American history that Henry Goddard distorted Alfred Binet’s IQ test for use at Ellis Island to keep immigrants out of the U.S., to segregate the army, and to justify and precipitate eugenics. Despite the sordid history of the intelligence tests, they are still used to determine school placement and justify segregation in 49 states. IQ tests are a major determining factor in the trajectory of the lives of the disabled. Today, 6.5 million Americans have disabilities (one out of five), and only 16% of these are employed. Clearly, there is still much work to be done in terms of societal awareness and progress. Habib’s film is a great start.

There are other solutions available already. In the RadioWest episode, Iowa was mentioned as the only state that does not use IQ for segregationist purposes. Habib notes that Iowa has something called non-categorical service delivery, which he says means that they are, “going to get services to the kids that need them regardless of whether they are given a disability category.” He says Iowa has very high rates of educational outcomes and inclusion. Another evaluation tool, the Support Intensity Scale, assesses a person’s support needs to find where a person needs support in order for him or her to “fully participate in school, in community, in adult life.”

Accompanying Intelligent Lives was the debut of an impressive five-minute film, Best Self, created by Garfield Academy, a Montessori high school in Salt Lake City. The film features Gerome Bosteels-Tcaciuc, a Garfield student diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. Gerome and his team bring the issues in Intelligent Lives close to home for Salt Lake viewers who immediately connect with the sweet and social teen who works at Bruges Waffles and who dreams of becoming a baggage handler at the Salt Lake City Airport.

The night ended with a Q&A with Habib and KUER’s Doug Fabrizio. For more information on Habib’s work, listen to KUER’s interview between Fabrizio and Habib, along with Habib’s TED talk.

Intelligent Lives will be broadcast nationally on PBS in October (date TBA). The film will be released for streaming and in DVD format by fall 2019. Viewers can also host screenings of the film in any community: see https://intelligentlives.org/host-screening.


Kaleigh Stock is a student at Weber State University and an intern at CATALYST Magazine. She will be graduating this semester with a degree in English Literature and plans on attending graduate school in Europe.

This article was originally published on April 3, 2019.