Dan and Samuel Habib

Dan Habib, Project Director of Inclusive Communities at the Westchester Institute of Human Development (WIHD) and founder of LikeRightNow Films, is a multi-hyphenate filmmaker and educator who can now add Emmy winner to his resume. This past September, along with his co-director and son Samuel Habib, he took home the statue in the Documentary category of the News & Documentary Emmy Awards for My Disability Roadmap. The extraordinary short film follows Samuel, who was born with GNAO1, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, and uses a wheelchair and communication device, as he meets successful adults with disabilities to help create a path for himself and others.

Habib was formerly Project Director and Filmmaker at the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability (IOD), and served on President Obama’s President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. His films, which have been screened worldwide, also include Including Samuel which chronicles the Habib family’s efforts to include Samuel in every facet of their lives, Intelligent Lives, which challenges the perceptions of intelligence through the eyes of three people with intellectual disabilities, and the upcoming feature-length documentary The Ride Ahead, His widely viewed Tedx talk, “Disabling Segregation,” on the benefits of inclusion in schools, can be found here. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with Inclusive Communities. What is its mission?

We use the power of documentary film to create more inclusive communities. The focus is on education, employment, independent living — everything across the spectrum. The work is both regional and national in nature. We do a lot of webinars, and a big part of my work is making films, including for events and education material. I’m doing this for the most part remotely from New Hampshire, where we live.

You started out as a photojournalist. How soon after Samuel was born did you change your focus?

When Samuel was three years old [he turns 24 on Dec. 7] a few things happened. My wife, Betsy [McNamara], had taken a year-long leadership series for parents with kids with disabilities and self-advocates, much like like Partners in Policymaking NY. It was an incredible opportunity. She told me, “You have to do this, we have to be on the same page.” I did and I came out of it wanting Samuel to feel like he belonged in every aspect of our family and our community, and he couldn’t do this without knowing that belonged in our neighborhood school.

That year Samuel also got really sick and was in critical condition for several weeks. When he stabilized, his neurologist said, “Have you ever thought of telling the story of your family?” That’s when I started filming Including Samuel.

Watching that documentary I thought about my own experience and how I didn’t know how to surmount being told inclusion was not for my family member, that there would be no help, no aide available in a general ed classroom, and she would be better served in a special ed classroom. 

The student is not the one with the problem, it’s the school that needs to change. Too many schools put the onus on family and not on changing the school’s approach to education. If anyone says to me, “We have this student who can’t be successful with inclusion,” I can tell them about a student in another district with a similar profile who has been extremely successful. It’s about following the law [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act].

It doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially if a family has no other choice but to get into an expensive legal battle, which many cannot afford. But I’ve never met a family that regretted pushing for inclusion.

The documentary also shines a light on how beautifully the whole family, including  Samuel’s older brother, Isaiah, interact, and how important this was to Samuel’s development. It’s great parenting.

It’s not just parenting, though. Without community support and the spirit of inclusion in our community in Concord [New Hampshire], Samuel would not have the life he has. Everyone was welcoming, from his preschool to the public school kindergarten to having downtown Concord accessible to wheelchairs to the local community college being fully accessible. It’s so many things.

And I learned from my parents, too. My mom was a social worker and my father was a college professor and they were always about impacting people in positive ways. As a teenager, it dawned on me that life is about increasing joy and decreasing pain however you do that. I found that filmmaking is the most effective vehicle for me to do this.

My Disability Roadmap follows a much older Samuel as he not only seeks guidance from successful adults with disabilities to help him chart his own path, but also pursues a goal to have people see those with disabilities as individuals who deserve respect and equal rights. So it was really something when he met then-Vice President Biden and Biden stroked Samuel’s face as if he were a child. Not surprisingly, that clip went viral. I have to ask: Did you ever hear from Biden?

To clarify, that clip went viral before it was included in the documentary. But no, we never heard from Biden’s camp!

Can you talk about your new film, The Ride Ahead?

Yes, it’s done! It just needs a few final touches.

It was co-directed by me and Samuel, and he did some camerawork with a GoPro. It’s a feature-length film about Samuel’s quest to become an adult and live the full life that he wants — independent living, relationships, sex. No one tells you how to be an adult much less one with a disability so it’s about his journey to navigate this.

We had actually planned for My Disability Roadmap to be a feature film, but about a year into production we shared a sizzle reel with The New York Times and they loved it, so they helped us develop it into a short, and [that NYT Op-Docs initiative] helped it go all over the world. We then did two more years of filming and editing, more in-depth interviews with incredible mentors, and added animation and a music score. Now we’re figuring out the film festival release plan for next year.

What is Samuel up to now?

In addition to his part-time job at WIHD, he’s working on his Associate Degree in a community college in Concord. He takes one class a semester. It’s very labor-intensive for him. Right now he’s taking statistics, has a 3.0 GPA and is mostly enjoying being on a college campus.

Talk about your dual roles as educator and filmmaker. Is there ever any tension there?

No, I wouldn’t say tension. I was a photojournalist for 20 years before I became a filmmaker full-time in 2008, and it’s always been about communication and education, and informing people about social issues and pressing topics. It’s not primarily about the craft and art of making film, it’s always about impact and social change.

I’ve always felt if I give people a look at what works and what can lead to success, in any area, and highlight those pathways, there’s a model for families to see.

What would you say has been a career high point, and a high point as Samuel’s father?

The moment we won the Emmy award was a high point on both those fronts. It was a film co-directed with Samuel and something close to our family’s heart that we created together. He was able to lead the production and was given a prestigious honor for a film that meant so much to us. It just blew our minds. And as a father, to see him get up on the stage and speak while using his communication device in front of six- or seven-hundred people, their eyes glued to him, it was incredible. [Watch Samuel’s speech here!]

But truly as a father, I’m proud of how much agency Samuel has in huge decisions in his life, like going to college or putting himself out there to get a girlfriend. I’m proud he has confidence and has worked hard to cultivate and advance that. He’s really not afraid to take risks and that’s something many of us can learn from him.

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