Dan Habib hadn’t given much thought to the experiences of people with disabilities. Their lives rarely intersected with his. That changed in 2000, when his second son, Samuel, then 1 year old, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Days began to fill with insurance paperwork, doctor visits, and helping Samuel negotiate everyday life.
Caring for his son could have become an obstacle to Habib’s career. Instead, it thrust the photojournalist into a new career as a documentary filmmaker, which included him in Samuel’s world.
In the 2007 film “Including Samuel,” Habib, ’87, tells the story of several young people with varied disabilities—Samuel among them—and the benefits and challenges of inclusion in schools and communities. Public television showed the Emmy-nominated film nationally in 2009, and it was translated into 17 languages.
“Kids are inherently inclusive, but you can’t get to know somebody who passes through the cafeteria in a wheelchair,” Habib said. Numerous studies confirm that when students with disabilities are included in general education classes, they’re more likely to graduate from high school, become employed, and have social relationships. What’s more, students without disabilities learn better in integrated classes, too.
These issues were far from Habib’s mind when he was a U-M student, where he majored in political science after a stint in the School of Art and Design. “Art history, philosophy, all the liberal arts, somehow contribute to the work I do now,” he said. He integrated these interests at the Michigan Daily, honing his skills and telling stories through photography.
Daily co-worker Andi Schreiber, ’88, recalls Habib “with his camera bag packed, ready to cover any and all campus activities. His energy level, positive outlook, and enthusiasm knew no bounds.”
Habib worked for a daily newspaper in Portland, Oregon, before becoming a staff photographer, then photo editor, at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire. Former colleague Felice Belman, a Boston Globe political editor, said his work, including a long-running series about local teens, was sometimes edgy and risk-taking. “He found a way to show the community to itself in ways they hadn’t seen before.”
“Even before I had Samuel, I loved photographing in schools and capturing the lives of young people,” said Habib. As he began work on “Including Samuel,” he took a journalist’s approach to learning a new craft, cold-calling filmmakers to ask questions. Filmmaker Ken Burns’ film studio suggested an editor. “The secret to filmmaking is surrounding yourself with talented people—film editors, music composers, and sound engineers,” Habib said.
He remained photo editor at the Monitor while he shot, directed, and produced “Including Samuel.” Then he left the paper to travel to screenings of the film, advocating for inclusion.
Habib impressed Dawn DeAngelis, chief content officer at New Hampshire Public Television, with his “focus and clarity and real human stories” and even more with the way he used his films to create community conversations. “He totally understands that the value of producing a film isn’t just about the film.”
Mary Schuh, director of consumer affairs and development at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability, knew “a film has the ability to influence hearts and minds in a way that a PowerPoint presentation or research paper can’t do.” She added that “Including Samuel” inspires viewers to question how society welcomes, values, and supports diversity. So when Habib suggested creating a position for a resident filmmaker, she jumped at the chance.
Habib’s recent films include “Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories,” about the physical and emotional injuries sustained when schools restrain students with disabilities, and “Who Cares About Kelsey?” about a high school student who lived with homelessness, self-mutilation, abuse, and ADHD. Habib created these two recent films to “spark new conversations about empowering, not overpowering, youth with emotional and behavioral disabilities.” His current project, with the working title “Intelligent Lives,” explores destructive assumptions about intelligence.
His extracurricular work also centers on disability. He gave a TEDx talk, titled Disabling Segregation; helped organize a summit in Washington, D.C., for 20 youth leaders to develop a national inclusion campaign (I Am Norm); and serves on the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. He is also the filmmaker for SWIFT, a national center that provides academic and behavioral support to promote the learning and academic achievement of all students, including those with the most extensive needs.
Whatever the project, Habib aspires to include those with disabilities. “I truly believe it will be the greatest civil and human rights movement of the 21st century.”