AS AN ANTHROPOLOGY PROFESSOR at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I teach a class in social science research methods to MFA students in our documentary film program, which is unique among such programs in its explicit attention to social justice. One of the struggles facing our students, who often come back from their first summer with hundreds of hours of vérité-style footage, is how to translate the experiences of the individuals they met into a larger story about cultural processes. More than that, how do they turn their material into a persuasive case for a moral or political position? And though this might seem like a kind of “beginner’s” struggle, it never really goes away, even for extremely seasoned filmmakers (or social scientists, for that matter). What is the relationship between individual experience and larger social phenomena?
As I watched Dan Habib’s Intelligent Lives — a delicately drawn but powerfully argued critique of intelligence testing and the legacy of eugenics in the United States — I thought of my students. In some ways, the film seems to me a master class in character-driven documentary. The three young people whose lives we follow — Naieer, Micah, and Naomie— as well as the son, Jesse, of narrator Chris Cooper, whose posthumous story is mentioned throughout the film, have all been labeled “intellectually disabled.” That is, at some point (in Naieer’s case, as young as 18 months old) and in part as a result of standardized intelligence testing, their parents were told that they would never be “normal,” contributing members of society. Micah, for instance, recalls seeing a letter as a child that reported he had an IQ of 40 and was unlikely ever to leave his parents’ care.
In each case, families fought difficult and ongoing battles to have their children “mainstreamed,” a term that simply refers to having children with significant intellectual disabilities in the same classrooms with non-disabled children. Even when parents are not encouraged to send their children away from home to specialized institutions, as the Coopers were, de facto segregation of intellectually disabled students means that mainstreaming is still often the exception rather than the norm in US public education, despite laws such as the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires schools to provide for the educational needs of disabled students on par with their peers.
While the stories of Naieer, Micah, Naomie, and Jesse are emblematic, they are not presented simply as examples of the larger class of the intellectually disabled. They are given on-screen breathing room so that we get a sense of their individual talents, tempos, and tastes. These young people and, it is important to note, their caregivers, are so compelling to watch on screen, so full of personality and promise, that they become the film’s argument, which is that supportive mainstreaming enriches the lives of us all, not simply those with disabilities.
One of the strengths of this film is its critique of eugenics and eugenic thinking. As the predictions and low expectations of teachers and administrators are arrayed in contrast to the funny, sensitive, creative, endearing individuals we meet in the film, the idea that those with lower “intelligence quotients” have less right to a healthy, fulfilling life is exposed for the murderous lie it is and the segregation of an enormous group — 6.5 million people — is thrown into startling relief.
A danger of this presentation, however, is that one could be tempted to think that battles over eugenics are politically unambiguous and lodged firmly in the past, tidily captured in the film’s stills of hundred-year-old books and grainy black-and-white films from the archive. But a new book by CUNY historian Dagmar Herzog, Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe, alerts us to the dangers of thinking that questions around eugenics are settled. As she points out, the specter of eugenics is invoked to reinsert limits on women’s rights to reproductive freedom, and in a language that seems morally just. Far-right activists in Europe and the United States have taken to accusing those supporting women’s right to abortion in selective cases (i.e., when it is likely that the fetus has a genetic abnormality) of being eugenicists. They declare themselves the champions of disability rights, rather than those unfeeling leftists who would seek to abort disabled individuals.
Eugenics lives in other ways, too. Anthropologist Khiara Bridges has convincingly shown how some pre- and post-natal care programs for low-income women of color who are seen as “high risk” or “socially deviant” share a logic with past eugenic campaigns aimed at “the poor,” in that their pregnancy and childbirth experiences, as well as their actual children, are systematically discounted and devalued by medical institutions. Any institutional effort to “improve” the “health of the nation” by targeting specific, pathologized populations and then demands standardized treatment of that group (“the disabled” or “the poor”) necessarily replicates eugenic thinking.
There is, then, more ongoing tension around disability rights and their intersection with the rights of women and the poor than Intelligent Lives lets on. Herzog’s important new work is part of a growing field of disability studies that argues we need to be careful not to think of disability rights as a homogenous field: as with any civil rights movement, the fight for disability rights is internally diverse and politically complicated. And of course no single documentary can be expected to answer every debate. But even if we bracket the intense battle that is staged between disability rights and reproductive choice, or the ongoing legacy of eugenics for women of color, Intelligent Lives drifts away from what we might call sociological facts in the service of its political message. But how much attention do filmmakers owe to what we understand as the sociological reality of a situation versus the narrative and emotional elements that will convince their audience? For that matter, which is more persuasive in documentary: heartwarming success stories or tales of our society’s most brutal failings?
Each of the young people featured in the film has an extremely supportive family formation, including, in each case, married, heterosexual parents who have continued to care for their child well past the cusp of adulthood. Each comes from a context in which there is a seemingly well-funded, innovative mainstreaming program available to them. And only one central character, Naomie, appears to have experienced any mistreatment at the hands of caregivers.
Living in Providence, Rhode Island, from age 15 to 21, Naomie was enrolled at the Birch Vocational School, which claimed to give education and job training to students with intellectual disabilities. In 2014, the US Department of Justice found that the school was forcing students like Naomie to perform exhausting and mindless manual labor — such as putting jewelry on cardboard — for little to no pay, and demanded that the school provide meaningful education and vocational training. But the Birch School is not the only one of its kind, and disabled Americans across the country have been found to be experiencing similar exploitation, all while their families are told, as Naomie’s mother reports, that it was “a good school.” While the grief of her mother and brother about this mistreatment are palpable, because the film’s narrative weight falls on the positive experiences of its subjects, viewers may be tempted to think the Rhode Island case is an outlier and that the DOJ ruling has solved the problem of ill treatment in institutional settings. This impression is, of course, not in line with the socio-economic reality that individuals with disabilities are at heightened risk for abuse of all kinds and that many, if not most, cities and their public school districts across the country are unable to provide the kinds of support that is clearly working so effectively in the cases of Naomie, Micah, and Naieer.
There is power in a happy ending. By the end of the film, Micah, one of the very first students mainstreamed into a classroom in his elementary school in western Massachusetts, successfully graduates from Syracuse University and has become his own legal guardian. Naomie is moving toward gainful employment in a sector, the beauty industry, she clearly loves. Naieer’s artistic talents are being nurtured on into a post–high school setting.
But these three triumphant stories belie what social scientists have revealed about the experience of the majority of adults with disabilities and their caregivers. While in recent years studies have stressed that there is considerable positive impact on the lives of the families of children with disabilities in general — an important corrective to what one scholar in the 1960s called the “chronic sorrow” that accompanies life with a disabled family member — it is also the case that the psychological, social, and financial stress faced by these families can be devastating. The risk of divorce and separation for parents of children with disabilities is higher than the general population. Such families may have lower rates of social participation. Parents of disabled children are less able to work outside the home; coupled with the sometimes enormous out-of-pocket expense of ongoing care, the economic impact is often insurmountable. And once they are adults, those with disabilities have higher rates of poverty and difficulty accessing the resources that are available. These realities are almost entirely absent from the film.
Habib has made a choice to stress the positive in order to persuade. To witness the success stories of Naomie, Micah, and Naieer is to encounter the most powerful argument I’ve seen for the universal right to inclusive public education, though Intelligent Lives is perhaps best seen as a node in a constellation of activism rather than an end in itself. I am reminded of my paternal grandmother, who taught children with severe intellectual and physical disabilities starting in the 1960s, when “mainstreaming” was not a word in anyone’s vocabulary. I once asked her whether it was hard to work with the kids in her classes, who struggled in such visible ways. She said that it was often grueling, but that there was real joy in it. It was very important to laugh when things were funny. If you lost that sense of humor, she said, you wouldn’t last. Intelligent Lives turns a cultural narrative that is pervaded by pathos, shame, and grief — and therefore is often disappeared — on its head and lets its viewers imagine, as the final text on screen suggests, “other ways” to live that are joyful and fulfilling.
Megan Moodie is associate professor of anthropology, specializing in feminist political and legal anthropology and experimental ethnographic writing, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Moodie’s popular essays on motherhood, art, politics, and illness can be found in literary journals such as MUTHA, Hip Mama, and the Chicago Quarterly Review, as well as the public anthropology site SAPIENS.org.