Intelligent Lives

Can any attempt to measure intelligence predict a person’s value?

Posted Jun 10, 2016

In the preview to Dan Habib’s forthcoming film, Intelligent Lives, Academy Award winning actor, and narrator of the film, Chris Cooper, shares the following about his son Jesse and previous attempts to quantify his intelligence: “The IQ test told us nothing about Jesse’s potential. About who he was as a person. Can any attempt to measure intelligence predict a person’s value or potential to contribute meaningfully to the world?” The question about the ability of intelligence testing to predict contributions, or value, operates as one of Habib’s central themes. Have narrow conceptions of “intelligence” limited individuals with intellectual disabilities by leading to placements in segregated classrooms, schools, and workplaces? Has a focus on intelligence testing as the gold standard of measurement and diagnosis, as opposed to assessments based on support needs, resulted in limiting opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities? What ways can conceptions of intelligence be expanded?

Source: Academy Award winning actor Chris Cooper (right) records narration for the new documentary film Intelligent Lives (working title), directed by Dan Habib of the UNH Institute on Disability (left). Cameraman Steven Ascher is at center. Photo copyright Dan Habib/UNH Institute on Disability

Intelligent Lives promises to highlight the challenges of assessment using traditional methods, and in turn, will demonstrate additional ways of identifying and meeting individual support needs.

Dan Habib, an award winning documentary filmmaker and project director at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability, previously directed films Including Samuel, Who Cares About Kelsey?, and Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories. In Including Samuel, Habib shares his family’s attempts to foster inclusion for his son Samuel in all aspects of their lives. In my interview with Habib about this current project, he shared that because his son uses a wheelchair, he is sometimes not treated as a teenager, but rather infantilized: “The perception of someone’s intelligence; the perception of someone’s capacity, dramatically affects their opportunities in life. Until we address the issue head on of these narrow perceptions of intelligence, people with disabilities are not going to make lasting progress in education, in the workforce, in relationships, in community.” Part of Habib’s efforts in Intelligent Lives is to highlight how these perceptions directly impact opportunities. As shared in the preview, only 17% of students with intellectual disabilities are included in general education settings in the United States. (Inclusion is the United States means a student with an individualized education plan – IEP – spends at least 80% of their school day in general educational settings.) In addition, only 24% of adults with intellectual disabilities are employed in non-sheltered settings. Much progress is needed to ensure these patterns of segregation for people with intellectual disabilities are changed to more inclusive futures.

When Micah Fialka-Feldman (above) was 11 years old, he scored 40 on an IQ test. His parents, however, insisted he be included in general education classes, and Micah developed a strong circle of friends and had access to assistive technology and instruction. Micah graduated from high school and is now a college student, teaching assistant, and staff member at Syracuse University. He is featured in the new film by Dan Habib, Intelligent Lives (working title). Photo copyright Dan Habib/UNH Institute on Disability
Source: When Micah Fialka-Feldman (above) was 11 years old, he scored 40 on an IQ test. His parents, however, insisted he be included in general education classes, and Micah developed a strong circle of friends and had access to assistive technology and instruction. Micah graduated from high school and is now a college student, teaching assistant, and staff member at Syracuse University. He is featured in the new film by Dan Habib, Intelligent Lives (working title). Photo copyright Dan Habib/UNH Institute on Disability

Intelligent Lives will feature the narratives of three individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as historical segments capturing a legacy of segregation and maltreatment of people with labels such as “feeble minded.” One of the individuals featured is my colleague at Syracuse University, Micah Fialka-Feldman. Currently, Fialka-Feldman co-teaches and guest lectures in courses in the School of Education. (I have had him come into the graduate courses I’ve taught to talk about his experiences of self-advocacy and efforts to be included in all levels of education, including university.) Fialka-Feldman is an internationally known disability rights activist and was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities (Habib also serves on this committee). Fialka-Feldman’s story is one that continues to challenge assumptions that a standardized test is an accurate measure of an individual’s capacity, or contributions. In the preview of the film, Fialka-Feldman’s mother, Janice Fialka remarks, “What we want to focus on is not a label, but on what are the supports that a child or person needs in order to participate in a meaningful way?” The Intelligent Lives educational materials will highlight measures, like the Supports Intensity Scale, which moves away from blanket assessments like intelligence tests toward “person-centered planning processes that help all individuals identify their unique preferences, skills, and life goals,” to allow meaningful participation regardless of labels of intellectual disability. In response to my question about what outcomes he hopes the film will generate, Habib remarked, “We would actually challenge the notion that IQ scores really needs to exist” and rather focus on assessing and meeting the unique support needs of individuals. Habib continues, “It is very possible to imagine a world where we use the Support Intensity Scale, a measure of someone’s support needs, as a way to determine eligibility for the type of financial resources and other supports they need to fully participate in education, the workforce, and all aspects of society.” In response to my question about what he hopes the film will display, Micah Feldman-Fialka replied, “That an IQ doesn’t speak to anything. IQ is just a number. I can do more things than what it shows.” His reply illustrates the necessity of refusing to let standardized intelligence testing become shorthand of a person’s interests or capacities.

Naieer Shaheed is a student who attends the completely inclusive Henderson High School in Dorchester, MA. Naieer is featured in Intelligent Lives (working title), the new film project by Dan Habib of the UNH Institute on Disability.  photo copyright Dan Habib/UNH Institute on Disability
Source: Naieer Shaheed is a student who attends the completely inclusive Henderson High School in Dorchester, MA. Naieer is featured in Intelligent Lives (working title), the new film project by Dan Habib of the UNH Institute on Disability. photo copyright Dan Habib/UNH Institute on Disability

One of the other individuals featured in the film is Naieer Shaheed, a high school student at Henderson Inclusion School in Boston. Shaheed is an accomplished artist and the preview displays his artwork. One of Shaheed’s teachers, Samuel Texeria remarks in the film, “I think that intelligence looks different for everybody. It’s clear he has an intellectual impairment. But I don’t…that doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t be intelligent.” Texeria continues, “The fact that he is a black man and he is tall, sometimes it is troubling to wonder what the outside world might perceive him as. If he’s being loud or jumpy or enthusiastic, somebody might perceive that as threatening. It is one thing when they’re young and they’re cute, but eventually they’re gonna get older.” Whereas Fialka-Feldman’s low IQ score could lead to blanket evaluations about his competence and capacity, Shaheed’s intellectual impairment interpreted through his gender and racial status means he has to counter oppressive systems that can treat him as a threat, or as someone without a future. In addition, Habib says the film’s educational materials will explore the research suggesting an overrepresentation of students of color in special education.

Habib has just begun filming a third person for the film, Naomie Monplaisir of Providence, Rhode Island. Monplaisir attended a segregated high school called the Harold A. Birch Vocational Program, a sheltered workshop housed inside of a Providence high school. Now in her late 20s, Monplaisir is trying to transition to paid, integrated employment. Employment rates for individuals with intellectual disabilities are significantly lower than that of their peers without intellectual disabilities. Those individuals that are employed tend to have part-time jobs, or employment in segregated sheltered workshops, where they are often paid sub-minimum wages.

Naomie Monplaisir and her brother Steve Monplaisir of Providence, Rhode Island.  Photo courtesy the Intelligent Lives project
Source: Naomie Monplaisir and her brother Steve Monplaisir of Providence, Rhode Island. Photo courtesy the Intelligent Lives project

Monplaisir’s story represents the national push to enable people with intellectual disabilities to join the workforce.  In 2014 Rhode Island and the US Department of Justice reached the nation’s first statewide settlement to address the rights of people with disabilities to receive state funded employment and daytime services in the broader community, rather than in segregated sheltered workshops and facility-based day programs. 

As with his previous films, Habib has partnered with a diverse group of organizations, including the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). NASP also partnered previously with Habib on the “I Care By” campaign that was launched in conjunction with his film Who Cares About Kelsey? The campaign redefined “care by giving people specific positive actions to take that have been proven to be successful, along with ways to share their actions and encourage others to do the same.” In preparing this blog, I also talked to Mary Beth Klotz, Director of Educational Practice at NASP about the film and the partnership between NASP and Habib. Klotz is committed to supporting Habib’s films because they help generate conversation: “He has a unique opportunity as a filmmaker…to create powerful advocacy tools and educational materials for professionals and families. NASP members utilize the films for a variety of purposes and rely on Dan because of the wonderful creative services he provides.” Fialka-Feldman adds, “I have really liked all the films he has made. I think this film will really show the stories of people with disabilities.” Discussing the importance of Habib’s film for NASP members, Klotz remarks, “School psychologists are advocates at heart. They really care about the students and families they serve, making a positive change, and speaking up for social justice issues.” I asked Klotz about IQ testing and various assessment practices: “The cognitive assessment score has the potential to carry too much weight in the decision making and can contribute to stigma.” Yet, Klotz warns that without some version of assessment individuals might not receive appropriate services. Klotz discussed how “snap judgments” regarding students with intellectual disabilities can be made where IQ numbers are used as evidence instead of incorporating additional data such as “the progress a student makes when given the right type of instruction and supports.”

This semester I had the privilege of teaching a graduate seminar on intellectual disability and human rights. The 15 students in the class were students enrolled in various programs including special education, collaborative design, and law. Despite the varied disciplinary backgrounds of the students, we collectively came back to the issue of measuring intelligence and how efforts to quantify intelligence can have damaging effects on those labeled as having an “intellectual disability.” From the history of eugenics, forced and coerced sterilization, institutionalization, and restrictive immigration practices, to more contemporary patterns of segregation in special education classrooms and sheltered workshops, as a class, we wondered if there was a way to challenge the supremacy of intelligence. We kept coming back to the question Habib is engaging with: Does any effort to measure intelligence accurately reflect the potentials of an individual? In what ways, can we expand our understanding of what counts as intelligence to facilitate meaningful participation for all?

Filmmaker Dan Habib and Micah Fialka-Feldman, one of the subjects of the upcoming film Intelligent Lives (working title, due Fall 2017) stand together inside a building at Syracuse University, where Micah has attended college and co-teaches classes.  Photo courtesy Bud Buckout
Source: Filmmaker Dan Habib and Micah Fialka-Feldman, one of the subjects of the upcoming film Intelligent Lives (working title, due Fall 2017) stand together inside a building at Syracuse University, where Micah has attended college and co-teaches classes. Photo courtesy Bud Buckout

I also had the privilege of co-teaching a sex education workshop for students enrolled in the Inclusive U program on campus, which enrolls students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in college classes. Every Tuesday I would help facilitate questions of respect, agency, and rights with specific application to sexuality. As I wrote in a previous post, I’m struck with how the very presence of these programs welcome individuals with intellectual disabilities as learners, scholars, teachers, and community members, and by extension transform assumptions about which individuals have a “right” to be in higher education. Intelligent Lives promises to prompt revolutionary thinking and highlight how individuals with intellectual disabilities are challenging generations of segregation and helping to create transformative communities. I eagerly await the release of the film in Fall 2017.