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'Intelligent Lives' spotlights capabilities of those with disabilities

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With barely more than an hour of running time, Dan Habib's documentary “Intelligent Lives” manages to interweave the life stories of four young adults with intellectual disabilities, along with a history of how those with intellectual disabilities had their rights stripped from them, and then reclaimed them.

These capsule portraits of the everyday lives of three young people, plus the requiem that actor Chris Cooper offers for his since-deceased son, Jesse, serve to illustrate the film's message that intelligence and capability can be measured by any number of metrics, beyond the traditional tests that are still used today.

Cooper, who narrates the film, recounts how intelligence quotient tests originated out of a well-intentioned desire to offer more effective education to those with intellectual disabilities, but became a pretext for discrimination against immigrants, and were used to consign native-born Americans with intellectual disabilities to the front lines of the first World War.

With the resultant eugenics movement in America being cited by Adolf Hitler as a pretext for the execution of hundreds of thousands of German citizens with intellectual disabilities, Cooper makes a persuasive historic case for the damage done by IQ tests, even before he turns to the more personal tale of his son, Jesse.

Because Jesse developed cerebral palsy, his parents were told he should be institutionalized, but Cooper proudly recalls how his son not only went on to become a straight-A student in high school, but also inspired a number of his friends to become educators themselves.

Jesse passed away in 2005, but Habib's film also introduces us to Naieer, an autistic high school student in Dorchester, Massachusetts; Micah, who was diagnosed with an IQ of 40 at the age of 11, but went on to graduate from and become an assistant teacher at my old alma mater of Syracuse University in New York; and Naomie, the child of Haitian immigrants, who has Down syndrome but maintains employment through a job placement agency in Providence, Rhode Island.

Each young person is at a different stage of their lives, and coping with their own challenges.

While Naieer struggles to express himself verbally, he demonstrates an almost instinctive affinity for painting and the visual arts.

By contrast, Micah is able to live relatively independently, without having anyone else serve as his legal guardian, and is socially adept enough to navigate both friendships and a budding romantic relationship.

And while Naomie struggles to count change as a cashier, she winds up being so embraced by the beauty school where she works as a trainee that they hire her on as a permanent member of the staff.

Just as Jesse Cooper inspired his best friend to teach English language learners, and his middle school girlfriend to teach music, so too does Micah's younger sister become an educator because of her brother, even as she struggles to work around the occasional obstinacy of some of her students with intellectual disabilities.

While Micah's sister has to remind herself that her well-adjusted brother must have had similar difficult periods when he was growing up, Naieer and Naomie's families worry about the struggles that still lie ahead for their loved ones.

Naomie's brother worries what might happen to her, if anything were to happen to him and his parents, and admits that being there for his sister has limited his ability to travel, while Naieer's father fears how police might react to his son, a tall young black man, if his autism caused him to behave erratically in public.

In the interests of full journalistic disclosure, I was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 2, and my mother was told I would need to be institutionalized into adulthood, so I'm no doubt coming into this film with some biases, but I would nonetheless contend that Cooper and Habib offer a compelling, coherent and compassionate argument in favor of respecting and affording outlets to a broad spectrum of intelligences.

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