Film examines disabled children’s education

By
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Soon after Dan Habib’s five-year-old son Samuel was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, the boy had a near-death case of pneumonia. As a coping mechanism, Habib’s doctor suggested that he document the boy’s struggle through photography and film.

At first skeptical, Habib soon embraced these media as a way to deal with such an emotionally draining experience.

Shortly thereafter, Habib turned this emotional outlet into a documentary that not only expresses the hardships but also the joy and beauty of raising a child with a physical disability.

The result of this effort, titled “Including Samuel,” was screened on Monday night for Brown students and the community, along with an accompanying panel discussion with Habib and people with disabilities, parents and local experts. The event was organized by Maureen Sigler, lecturer in education.

The film features home video, photographs, clips of Samuel at school and interviews with a variety of people affected by disabilities to show how inclusion and integration of children with disabilities is best for every child – disabled or not.

“Separation is easier for teachers and administrators, but education that can reach all kids will be the most beneficial for all kids,” Habib said in remarks after the film, explaining that disabilities are “part of a natural diversity of life that is often hidden.”

The film cites many examples of how integration has hugely benefited a variety of people.

According to Samuel’s first-grade teacher, learning how to accept and befriend Samuel has helped all of the children in his class interact with one another and accept other forms of diversity they encounter.

The film shows quick interviews with Samuel’s classmates, who have nothing but loving and adorable things to say about him – from citing his favorite color to how his wheel chair goes “at least 99 miles an hour.”

Keith Jones, an adult hip-hop artist with cerebral palsy, explained how moving from a segregated school to a normal public school is what allowed him to live a normal and fulfilling life.

Jones described being in a special education school, where the extent of the education was coloring with crayons.

“I was like, ‘Can I get some math over here?’ It felt like I was in a nursing home,” he said of his elementary school.

Jones believes that the “separate but equal” treatment of people of all ages with disabilities is the “final frontier of civil rights” in America.

The film features many examples of successful integration other than Samuel’s. The Haggerty School in Massachusetts is a fully integrated elementary school where, according to the principle, none of the curriculum is dumbed down and no test scores have gone down since the integration.

There are, of course, less successful examples. One is the story of Emily Huff, a woman with schizophrenia who attempted suicide because of the intense bullying in her public middle school. She then went to a private special educational school where she was able to succeed.

In the panel afterwards, Habib explained that this failed integration is due to poor support from the school systems and teachers who are simply unprepared to teach disabled students.

One of the teachers interviewed choked up as she described her first year of teaching in an integrated class room.

“I don’t know how to reach them and the valedictorian with the same lesson plan in the same classroom,” she said, adding that she cried many times throughout the year out of frustration.

Underprepared teachers are a real problem in the fight for inclusion of disabled children in public schools, Habib said. The only way Samuel is able to thrive in his public school is through a devoted teacher, an attentive aid and lots of technological equipment.

Habib said that is why the change needs to come at the university level, where teachers can “be educated not to be special educators or normal educators but just teachers” who can deal with all kinds of students. Ultimately, he said, there is a long road of reform ahead for schools looking to better accommodate disabled children.