Dan Habib: A Filmmaker’s Exploration of School Inclusion
You were a successful photojournalist and photo editor. Why did you become a documentary filmmaker? I was in photojournalism for 20 straight years and loved the profession for those 20 years, whether I was a staff photographer (1988-92), freelancer (1992-95), or photo editor (1995-2008). Looking back, it was a golden age of newspaper photojournalism, when the excitement and immediacy of digital photography converged with a healthy newspaper industry that allowed us to open up space for multi-page photo essays.
But when I finished my film Including Samuel, which I shot, directed, and produced while still the photo editor at the Concord Monitor, I had an overwhelming desire to put all of my energy into pushing that film nationally and internationally, so that it could have the greatest possible impact on the educational system, the lives of students with disabilities, and their families. That was also a time when I had just finished directing our photo coverage of the 2008 [U.S. presidential election] campaign, which was incredibly exciting. I’m a political junkie and it was a blast covering six New Hampshire primaries as both a photographer and editor. It was like a sporting event, pushing for as much intimacy and access we could possibly obtain with the candidates.
Once the primary was over, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I wanted to do something other than work in newspapers. That’s when I pitched the job as ‘Filmmaker in Residence’ to the Institute on Disability at UNH. Fortunately, they were willing to take a risk and create this new position. The catch was that I needed to fundraise all of the money for my project budget. Even after I got the job at UNH and Including Samuel was broadcast nationally on public television, I had a hard time believing I was actually a filmmaker. I thought of myself as a photojournalist pretending to be a filmmaker!
Your films have all had an educational component. Does this make you an education activist, a journalist, or both? My son Samuel and his disability, cerebral palsy, were the driving motivations for Including Samuel. And until schools are welcoming for all kids—even those with complex disabilities—Samuel and other students with disabilities will never have equal opportunities in society. I truly believe it will be the greatest civil and human rights struggle of the 21st century. That’s an important story to cover in film or photojournalism. But even before I had Samuel I always loved photographing in schools and capturing the lives of young people. A child’s access or lack of access to a quality education and to adult mentors can make or break their future opportunities. But providing a quality education is not easy, so films about education need to be complex and balanced, like any good journalism. People tell me that the content in my films is real and raw. Waiting for ‘Superman’ was an engaging film but it’s message boiled down to “Unions Bad. Charter Schools Good.” I think that’s a vast oversimplification of the challenges in education.
I don’t make films that prescribe easy solutions, because there are none. But I do think my films capture evidence-based practices in action in real schools, through the eyes and lives of educators, students, and families. So yes, I’d consider myself an inclusion advocate, but with a journalist’s approach to making honest films that don’t sugarcoat the complexity of the issues.
Including Samuel was an incredibly personal story that focused, in part, on your son Samuel. Why did you need to tell his story? I started Including Samuel while Samuel lay in a medically induced coma. He was four years old and had developed pneumonia from complications following a tonsillectomy surgery. As I waited by his bedside, one of his doctors, Dr. James Filiano, encouraged me to photograph the experience, to use my background as a photojournalist to tell the story of parenting a child with a disability. At the time, it served as a way for me to do something other than freak out with fear. In some ways, the film was driven by a very narrow motivation—I wanted to make the world a more welcoming place for my son. My wife Betsy and I couldn’t imagine him feeling like he truly belonged in our community unless he felt fully welcomed into our own elementary school.
My whole career was about telling other people’s stories, so pointing the camera on our own life did not come naturally. Being Samuel’s dad has forced me to look at my own prejudices. When I saw people who couldn’t walk or talk, what crept into my head? It’s painful to admit, but I often saw them as less smart, less capable, and not worth getting to know. When we realized Samuel had a disability, I wondered, ‘Is that how the world will see Samuel?’
I asked a lot of my family by making this film, especially Betsy. She is a much more private person than I am, and it is not her nature to be so public about our life. But she believes as deeply in inclusion as I do, so she supported the mission of the film. Early on in the filmmaking process, I told the family that they would have veto-power over the content of the film. So when it came time to review the rough cut, there were parts that I cut either because Betsy, our son Isaiah, or Samuel didn’t feel comfortable with it, or one of them felt it didn’t accurately reflect their feelings. I’m glad it was a team effort—that has made the film’s success a lot more gratifying for all of us, because it truly reflects all of our feelings, and creative ideas.
My hope is that my film will inspire the public—especially anyone connected to education—to talk about inclusion in a more informed and innovative way. I also hope they will get to know Samuel at the same time. Including Samuel was a chance to introduce Samuel to the world in the way that we see him—as an intelligent, engaging, funny boy who also happens to have a disability.
What does inclusion mean for Samuel and kids like him? We are fortunate. Concord, N.H., is very inclusive in both the school system and in community life. I have never heard a negative comment about Samuel’s inclusion. In fact, many parents have told us about the positive traits that inclusion has engendered in their children: patience, compassion, flexibility, etc. In our community—and increasingly nationwide and internationally—people generally understand that disability is a part of the diversity of humankind. But inclusion is still happening inconsistently throughout the country. It varies state-to-state, town-to-town, and classroom-to-classroom.
Samuel continues to be fully included in general educational classes at Rundlett Middle School, where he is entering 7th grade. He made the honor roll every quarter last year. I believe some keys for his success in middle school have been well-trained paraprofessionals, weekly team-planning time, his Dynavox communication device, and a collaborative teaching model, commonly called ‘co-teaching,’ in which the special education teacher works in tandem with the general education teacher to make sure that kids with disabilities can be fully included by having access to the modifications and supports they need to be successful in the general education classroom.
The inclusion he experiences in school has carried over into other aspects of his life; he’s been active in baseball, theatre, summer camp, adaptive sports, Scouts, and he has a very active social life!
What did you learn from your previous films Teen Sexuality in a Culture of Confusion and Including Samuel that informed the making of your new film, Who Cares About Kelsey? It’s important to ask honest and provocative questions that may make people uncomfortable at times. Both films asked viewers to consider some challenging notions. In Teen Sexuality in a Culture of Confusion: Can teenagers have healthy and appropriate sexual relationships? Is it still possible to wait until your wedding night for the ‘first time’? In Including Samuel: Can students with the most complex intellectual, physical, and mental disabilities still be fully included in general education classes? In Who Cares About Kelsey?: What are our traditional notions of disability? Can an emotional or behavioral disability grow out of traumatic events of childhood? Can school discipline be administered in a way that is positive and not punitive?
I’ve always wanted to create projects that won’t feel irrelevant in a few years. To do that, I have to find people who are creating educational environments that are radically different than the norm. Each film captures that, primarily through the eyes of the students themselves. That’s become increasingly important to me, to make films from a youth-eye view, from the inside looking out.
Who Cares About Kelsey? focuses on one student suffering from emotional issues. She’s in danger of dropping out of high school. How did you become interested in this aspect of education? I’ve screened and discussed Including Samuel more than 400 times in the past four years. At almost every event, someone asked a variation on this question: ‘What about kids with emotional or behavioral disabilities? Can they be fully included like Samuel?’ The journalist part of my brain thought, ‘If this question keeps coming up, there must be an important story to be told through a film.’ I did some research and read some alarming statistics that motivated me to take on this project. Over two million young people in the United States have an emotional/behavioral disability (EBD). The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that students with EBD:
- Have the worst graduation rate of all students with disabilities. Nationally, only 40 percent of students with EBD graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 76 percent.
- Are three times as likely as other students to be arrested before leaving school.
- Are twice as likely as other students with disabilities to live in a correctional facility, halfway house, drug treatment center, or on the street after leaving school.
Those are awful outcomes, and I wanted to create a film project that, like Including Samuel, could be a catalyst for progressive educational reform. I set out to create a project that focused on the voices of youth, families, and educators to shows innovative educational approaches that help these students to succeed—while improving the overall school culture and climate.
Kelsey is the kind of student that many teachers want nothing to do with. How can this documentary help teachers and schools? It’s true, when Kelsey entered Somersworth High School in Somersworth, N.H., she was a more likely candidate for the juvenile justice system than graduation. She has a diagnosis of ADHD and carried the emotional scars of homelessness, and substance abuse, as well as the actual scars of repeated self-mutilation. Throughout middle school and her early high school years, Kelsey was volatile, disruptive, and by her own admission, “not a nice person” to be around. As a freshman, she didn’t earn a single academic credit and was suspended for dealing drugs.
But during Kelsey’s sophomore year, a new school leadership team implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a youth-directed planning process called RENEW, and other reforms to improve the school’s culture and reduce the dropout rate.
Who Cares About Kelsey? follows Kelsey through the ups and downs of her senior year, and shows what successful educational approaches look like on the ground, in a real school. My hope is that the film will make viewers reconsider the “problem kids” in their own high schools and spark new conversations about empowering—not overpowering—youth with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
How has participating in the film impacted Kelsey’s life? She’s become a voice for students with emotional difficulty. What does the future hold for Kelsey? Kelsey had never flown on a plane until her senior year in high school. Now she is traveling all over the country co-presenting with me at film screenings. She can stand up in front of 1,000 people without being nervous. She’s an amazing public speaker. She has completed a financial literacy course, purchased a new car, is doing firefighter training, and is considering college for next year. This is not a fairy tale—she still has challenges and obstacles. But by sharing her life story, she has already made a dramatic impact on the way people view hidden disabilities like ADHD and other mental health disorders.
Now that you are a filmmaker, fundraising is an inevitable part of your job. That’s a big change from your steady newspaper paycheck. Why is it necessary? I get very little funding through UNH. I have to raise all the money for the film editing and production, as well as the funds for salary and benefits for both me and my assistant. It’s hard work to raise all those funds but it’s the nature of the beast these days for non-profit organizations like the Institute on Disability (IOD). But I have extensive collaboration from my colleagues, who have expertise in virtually every area of disability and education, as well as fundraising, communications, and design. We’ve raised money through foundations, partnerships with other non-profits, and individual donations.
But now we are ramping up for a full national launch, so we’ve started a Kickstarter Campaign to raise $20,000 by August 22nd to help us take the film national. I hope your readers will check out the Kickstarter site and support the film’s national launch!
Dan Habib is the Filmmaker in Residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. His film, Including Samuel, was broadcast nationwide on public television stations in Fall 2009 and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010. Before joining UNH in April of 2008, Habib was the photography editor of the Concord Monitor. In 2006 and 2008, he was named the national Photography Editor of the Year for papers with a circulation under 100,000. He has been a judge of the Pulitzer Prizes and is a six-time New Hampshire Photographer of the Year. Habib and his wife, Betsy, live in Concord, New Hampshire with their sons Isaiah, 15, and Samuel, 12.