Dan Habib

Dan Habib, a filmmaker, describes his personal experiences raising a son with a disability and his transition into producing films focusing on inclusion of students with disabilities. He has endeavored to become an advocate for inclusion by highlighting the possibilities, conveying a parent's perspective, and by influencing how we think of inclusive education, students with more significant disabilities, and soon the IQ test. Dan’s past and upcoming projects are highlighted in this in-depth biography.

Dan Habib never imagined that he would produce a movie about his own family and their experience raising Samuel, his son with cerebral palsy.

Habib--a photojournalist--spent 20 years capturing the lives of others, never his own. His transition into advocating for students with disabilities stemmed from his son’s experiences and his move from photojournalism to filmmaking was a means of making deeper connections with his audiences.

Habib explained that the motivation to start his first film, Including Samuel, was the result of three concurrent events.

In 2002, Samuel was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and in 2003, after complications from a tonsillectomy, he ended up in an intensive care unit. Habib was understandably stressed and at the encouragement of Samuel’s physician, he leaned on his photography for comfort, taking photos of Samuel’s experience in the hospital.

Next, Habib became involved in a leadership series for parents of children with disabilities at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), which focused on the importance of inclusive education. The series inspired Dan, and he became committed to inclusivity-- both in and out of schools. He also started documenting the experiences of students with disabilities in inclusive settings, gaining a deeper understanding of inclusive education in action. Lastly, a group of students at a local prep school in New Hampshire, after viewing Habib's photo exhibition on teen sexuality, told him that they would have been more connected to the work if it were a film.

A group of young people touched by Including Samuel started the I Am Norm campaign for “promoting inclusive practices in schools and communities.” The crux of the campaign is the question, “Who is Norm?” and the answer, of course, is “Everyone, for we are all unique and no one person is normal.”

After Including Samuel, Habib went on to create Who Cares About Kelsey?, a film that follows Kelsey, a student with significant emotional and behavioral needs and how her school’s use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and person centered planning helped her succeed.

Following this project, Habib created other works:

  • A series of nine mini films, including six focused on incarcerated youth and two on students with autism
  • Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories, a film documenting the experiences of children and young adults with restraint and seclusion. As with Including Samuel, a campaign (originated by the non-profit TASH) accompanied the film. Stop Hurting Kidsseeks to “end restraint and seclusion abuse in schools,” an important and timely topic.

Habib also creates films for SWIFT (Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation) and has recently release two short films--Whatever it Takes and Together. Both films feature educators, students, and families of schools working with guidance from SWIFT. Both are powerful.

All of Habib’s SWIFT films can be used freely from the SWIFT YouTube channel.

In his newest project, Intelligent Lives (working title), Habib is exploring the world of students living with intellectual disabilities. He explains that nationally, only 17% of students with intellectual disabilities are included in general education, representing the most segregated group of students with disabilities. They have a graduation rate of 40% and an unemployment rate of 75%.

The film will also educate viewers on the roots of IQ testing as a measure of intelligence and its historical use as a tool for determining “defective” members of society during the early 1900’s European migration to the United States. Habib will show how IQ testing has led to mass segregation and the over classification of students of color in special education, yet is still used as an assessment tool in 49 of 50 states. Although the film will not be released until Fall 2017, information on students with intellectual disabilities, resources, and a short preview are currently available.

The Urban Collaborative spoke to Habib about his views on special education in urban schools. He told us he has found that successful inclusive practices are less about funding and more about school and district leadership, and learning how to implement inclusive practices.

For example, while filming for Whatever It Takes in Moorhead, Mississippi, Habib found an inclusive school driven by the belief that all students can learn and be successful. In Moorhead, , one of the poorest communities in the country with 100% of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch, Habib saw a public school that “implemented inclusion beautifully.” He saw accessible and inviting classrooms, universally designed lessons, and scheduled time for general and special education teachers to collaborate.

From his perspective as a parent and his experiences visiting schools, Habib finds that implementing inclusive practices in large part means reframing how the school views families and creating an environment where families are collaborators and partners in their children’s education. He urges districts and schools to:

  • Initiate regular communication with families
  • Empower families to have an integral role and feel valued in their children’s education
  • Realize that parents are experts where their children are concerned

In his own experience, Habib has seen the successful engagement of families through schools offering volunteer opportunities, getting to know the families before the school year begins, and showing acts of appreciation for the parents’ role.

Dan Habib has tried to be a catalyst for inclusion by showing visually what is possible, by creating a narrative from the perspective of a parent, and by pushing the envelope in how we view inclusive education, students with more significant disabilities, and soon the IQ test. We are honored to be a partner in Dan Habib’s work. We encourage our readers to look at SWIFT, show Habib’s movies, and connect with him to show your support.