LACONIA – Screening his film “Intelligent Lives” in Laconia tomorrow evening is especially fitting to filmmaker Dan Habib, given that the state once warehoused thousands of people with intellectual disabilities at the former Laconia State School.

“Laconia’s a very appropriate place to show this film because of the institution that was there,” Habib said in a telephone interview. “I know that people at the time – both families and professionals – probably thought they were doing the right thing. But looking back, it was systemic segregation and, in many cases, abuse of people with disabilities.”

The film – which follows the lives of three people who strive for acceptance in school, college and relationships – will be shown at the Belknap Mill as the centerpiece of an evening that will highlight the abilities of people with intellectual challenges. Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper is the film’s narrator.

For Belknap Mill Executive Director Karen Prior, the State School connection was incidental.

“I don’t think it was intentional that we put together this screening because of that,” she said in an interview. “I think the fact that there’s a large discussion happening around the State School right now is timely. It wasn’t intentional, but it’s timely.”

The evening will start at 5 p.m. with a reception built around the artwork of people with intellectual disabilities. Organized by the mill’s artist-in-residence, Larry Frates, Prior said the theme of “Artistic Lives” dovetailed perfectly with the film “Intelligent Lives.”

The screening of the film, at 6 p.m., will be followed by remarks from Habib and Sen. Maggie Hassan, and a panel discussion about the topics covered by the film.

“It really was true serendipity,” Prior said of the way the evening came together with the support of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Lakes Region Community Services, New Hampshire Vocational Rehabilitation, and Larry Frates Creates.

A recurring theme

This is Habib’s eighth film, and championing people with disabilities has been a recurring theme.

“People with intellectual disabilities are THE most segregated group of Americans, bar none,” Habib said. “Only 17 percent of students with intellectual disability are included in regular education. Only 40 percent will graduate with a regular high school diploma. And then only 15 percent will be employed. I defy anybody to show me a group of Americans that have lower outcomes than any of those areas.”

And yet, said Habib, they are capable of so much more, which is the film’s central theme.

“The film shows a different way that we can proceed as a society to include more people with intellectual disabilities in all aspects of life,” he said.

“We show, through the film, that people have a very narrow view of what it means to be intelligent.”

A big driver of the low expectations society has historically had for people with intellectual disabilities is the standard IQ test, Habib believes.

“It’s a big driver,” he said. “The film shows how IQ testing in our country’s history led to some horrible actions against people with disabilities, including, as you well know in Laconia, the mass institutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities.”

In addition to institutionalization, he said, “In this country we forcibly sterilized 60,000 people largely because of how they scored on IQ tests.”

The Laconia State School – which operated from 1901 to 1991 – was one of the places where such forced sterilization took place.

“That’s our history and we need to own up to that and we need to understand how the IQ test and other narrow definitions of intelligence continue to the very present day, continue to segregate people in education and employment and in other aspects of life,” Habib said.

Recalibrating expectations

Habib, a filmmaker-in-residence at the University of New Hampshire, said he wants those who see the film to recalibrate their expectations of what people with intellectual disabilities can accomplish.

“How do we understand that there are so many ways that people with disabilities can succeed in K-12 school, in higher education and employment.”

Jennifer Sottak sees that success in her role as one of the student services coordinator of the Laconia School District. She will be one of the panelists talking about the themes of the film after the screening, along with student Laura Davies, Jaime Laurent, the campus accessibility coordinator at Lakes Region Community College, and Becky Bryant from Lakes Region Community Services.

Sottak said the film resonates with what she does on a daily basis overseeing student services at Laconia High School and two of the district’s three elementary schools.

“I have seen the pendulum shift and the focus for students who have those cognitive disabilities, as soon as they enter high school we really are planning for what’s the next step,” she said. “We have a lot of programming outside the school getting students some work opportunities and different experiences in their community.”

The Laconia State School connection is also not lost on Sottak, whose mother worked there for 30 years and was one of the last people to leave when they closed the doors.

Sottak credits people and businesses in the community for their willingness to give people with intellectual challenges a chance to succeed.

“I feel like every 5-10 years there’s a nice big shift that really changes the trajectory of how people look at young adults or adults with intellectual disabilities, and what they’re capable of. And they’re capable of great things,” Sottak said.

Habib believes those who watch the film will come away feeling the same way.

“I think people will leave this screening with much higher expectations,” he said.

The Belknap Mill screening of Intelligent Lives is free, but registration is required. To sign up, go to http://tinyurl.com/BelknapMillscreening

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