I want disabled people who view this documentary to know our own history, and to feel empowered to speak up for ourselves when we can.
By Devin Turk
I just had the opportunity to view Intelligent Lives, a 2019 film by Dan Habib. Part disability history lesson, part modern day documentation, Intelligent Lives is a documentary that follows three disabled young adults in the northeastern United States. We meet Naieer, Micah, and Naomie, and we watch as they navigate their community spaces via school and work.
Interwoven with this modern-day, hopeful portrayal of inclusion as a societal goal are clips that were, at times, hard to watch.
This documentary provides an introductory lesson into a fraction of the recent history of disabled people. Intelligent Lives leads this lesson with the mention of Dr. Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who published the first “intelligence” test. Dr. Binet did so to identify children in need of “educational assistance” which doesn’t sound as sinister as history would turn out to be.
In 1905, Dr. Binet believed the concept of “intelligence” as we know it to not be set in stone; that it is of a fluid nature, often shaped by one’s environment and culture. If only this notion had staying power.
Just a few years later, American psychologist Henry H. Goddard altered the administration of the test as a means to identify the “feeble-minded” in society.
Intelligent Lives reports that by the year 1913, the United States government was testing a staggering 29,000 immigrants each week upon their entrance to Ellis Island. During the first World War, the American military used an IQ test to determine what rank a solider would serve in. Those soldiers with lower scores were most likely to be stationed on the front lines of battle.
The idea of an “IQ” also played a key role in the horror that is eugenics pseudoscience.
In short, eugenics is a means to the extermination of any person or group of people who is deemed “lesser-than.” Eugenicists of the twentieth century called for the elimination of the “menace” of the “feeble-minded” through marriage restriction and shutting of hundreds of thousands of Disabled persons away in institutions. Additionally, Adolf Hitler himself cited the research of American eugenicists to justify mass sterilization and the killing nearly 250,000 Disabled Germans.
As you may have inferred by this point, the IQ test has a history of being grossly weaponized against marginalized communities, especially disabled people. It may (or may not) shock you to learn that this continues even today. The IQ test, however well-intentioned its developer may have appeared over one hundred years ago, continues to be utilized as a tool of oppression.
This brings me back to the beginning of the film, which is all the more powerful in recognition of the history that is presented later on.
Intelligent Lives opens with a number of statistics on intellectually disabled young students and adults in our modern United States: 6.5 million people are intellectually disabled, yet only 17% of that population is included in general education settings. The classification of intellectual disability is determined, as you may have guessed, by a certain IQ score threshold. Despite all this history, standard IQ testing remains “alive and well” throughout the United States.
This brings me to Naieer’s story as it is shown in the film. Naieer, one of the subjects of the documentary, is a young black painter and student who is described in the film by faculty at his school as determined and hardworking. Early on in the film, one scene shows him in a classroom participating in lessons about the American Civil War and the history of racial segregation in the United States.
I feel I would not be responsible in writing this article if I did not include the following statement: I am writing this article in the midst of global outrage expressed in response to countless black people dying at the hands of police brutality.
I was struck by that scene in Naieer’s classroom, and I’m asking: how many disabled people of color are NOT taught about our country’s deep enmeshment with white supremacy? One does not have to wonder: Intelligent Lives notes that black children are almost TWICE as likely to be classified as intellectually disabled and therefore subject to placement in segregated educational settings.
Knowledge is power, and disabled students, particularly black and brown young people, are systemically set up to be denied access to their own history via segregated educational settings.
Intelligent Lives also touches on many other important topics relevant to the disability community: sheltered workshops, non-integrative employment, guardianship, and sub-minimum wage.
Intelligent Lives sheds vital light on a history you won’t find in too many textbooks, one marked by systemic violence, while also showing disabled individuals expressing themselves through the arts, attending community gatherings, and forming interpersonal relationships in ways that are meaningful to them. In Intelligent Lives, we see disabled artistry, education, friendship, and self-advocacy, all in stark contrast to documented history of what happens when our world does not value disabled people for who we are.
I want disabled people who view this documentary to know our own history, and to feel empowered to speak up for ourselves when we can. As Micah expresses during the film, “Sometimes you have to fight to get what you want.”
The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Devin S. Turk (they/he pronouns) is an Autistic, nonbinary college student and cat enthusiast writing from the Mid-Atlantic United States. Devin is active on Twitter @AuroralAutistic