Intelligent Lives

This project was transferred to the Westchester Institute for Human Development in July 2021.

The perception of intelligence is a powerful force in the systematic segregation, maltreatment, and unfulfilled potential of hundreds of millions of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. and worldwide. The documentary film project Intelligent Lives (working title) explores how the segregation of people with intellectual disabilities became the norm, why this segregation is slowly being dismantled, and how some people with intellectual disabilities are blazing a bold new path.


About the Project

Dan Habib, Producer/Director/Cinematographer

Dan Habib

Dan Habib is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including SamuelWho Cares About Kelsey?Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories, and many other films on disability-related topics. He uses his films to lead discussions about the challenges and benefits of inclusive education and related topics across the country and internationally. Including Samuel, about Habib’s son who has cerebral palsy, was broadcast nationally on public television stations in fall 2009 and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010. The film was featured on NPR's "All Things Considered" and "Good Morning America" as well as in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and Education Week. It has been translated into 17 languages and is used as a teaching tool worldwide. Who Cares About Kelsey? was broadcast nationally on public television in fall 2013. It has been featured in Education Week and has been screened at more than 300 events in every state and internationally. 

Chris Cooper, Narrator/Executive Producer

Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper won the 2003 Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in Adaptation. He has been an actor on stage, screen, and television for three decades, with notable roles in Lone StarAmerican Beauty, Seabiscuit, The Bourne Identity, October Sky, August Osage CountyLonesome Dove, and dozens of other films. He has narrated several documentaries, including The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln on American Experience. In 1987, Cooper and his wife Marianne Leone had their son Jesse. Jesse loved to windsurf and write poetry. He also had cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Cooper and Leone became advocates for inclusive education, and Jesse became a high school honor student. In 2005, Jesse died suddenly from a seizure at age 17. Leone wrote the 2010 book, Knowing Jesse. Both she and Cooper continue to volunteer their time and resources for nonprofits focused on disability rights. Cooper is donating his time spent working on the film.

Marianne Leone, Executive Producer

Marianne leone

Marianne Leone is an actress who appeared in The Sopranos, a screenwriter, and an essayist published in The Boston Globe. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, actor Chris Cooper, and two rescue dogs.  The Jesse Cooper Foundation funds inclusion and adapted sports for children with special needs, and supports disabled orphans in Romania.

Amy Brenneman, Executive Producer

Amy Brenneman

Amy Brenneman divides her time evenly between acting, producing and political activism. Her list of theater credits spans from Lincoln Center Theater to Yale Rep and her film and television history includes award-winning roles on NYPD BlueJudging AmyFear, and, currently, The Leftovers. Amy co-founded The Cornerstone Theater Company, which specializes in site-specific community-based original theater pieces centered on themes of social justice, with largely local cast and crew members. She produced and directed the documentary The Way the World Should Be about the trailblazing work of the CHIME Institute and its mission of inclusive education. Amy has taught drama and creative process at the CHIME Charter school, which specializes in educating children of all abilities. She has received numerous honors from organizations including Women in Film, the California State Assembly, the National Children’s Alliance, the Chime Institute, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the Help Group and the Producer’s Guild of America. 

James Rutenbeck, Editor

James Rutenbeck

James Rutenbeck is an independent producer and editor. His films have been screened internationally at museums and festivals, including Museum of Modern Art, Cinema du Reel, Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, National Gallery and Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival. His feature-length film Scenes from a Parish won the three Insight Awards of Excellence from the National Association of Film and Digital Media Artists and was broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens in 2009. Rutenbeck was a recipient of the DuPont Columbia Journalism Award for his work as producer on the PBS series Unnatural Causes and has been awarded grants from the Sundance Documentary Fund, Latino Public Broadcasting and Southern Humanities Media Fund. He is currently Executive Producer of Class of ’27, a series of three short films about the lives of very young children in remote parts of rural America.

Jody Becker, Story Editor

Jody Becker

Jody Becker is an award-winning documentary film, radio and print journalist. As a writer and story editor, she collaborates with directors aiming their cameras at subjects highlighting issues ranging from public policy to health (Autistic-LikeVoices, and Habib’s Mr. Connolly Has ALS) and the arts. As an on-air reporter and producer at Chicago Public Radio for a decade, her work was frequently heard on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and the highly acclaimed public radio business show, Marketplace. She's also worked as an editor on Weekend All Things Considered, and her stories have appeared in The New York and the, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, Variety and other newspapers and magazines.

Matisyahu, Musician


Matisyahu is a world-renowned reggae vocalist, beatboxer, and alternative rock musician. Known for blending Orthodix Jewish themes with reggae, rock, and hip hop beatboxing sounds, Matisyahu's 2005 single, "King Without a Crown," was a Top 40 hit in the United States. Matisyahu is donating the use of his music in this film.

Paul Brill, Original Music and Composer

Paul Brill

Paul Brill has composed scores for numerous award-winning films, TV series, commercials, and NPR program themes, as well as several acclaimed CDS of original and innovative songwriting. He has received 3 Emmy award nominations for his film scores Full Battle Rattle (National Geographic), The Devil Came on Horseback (Break Thru Films), and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (HBO). He recently collaborated with rock legend U2 on the HBO film, Burma Soldier, composing a new string arrangement for an acoustic version of their classic son, “Walk On,” and also won the 2011 Best Music Award from the International Documentary Association for his score for the film, Better this World

Lisa Smithline, Outreach Consultant

Lisa Smithline

Lisa Smithline is an experienced producer and marketing strategist, creating dynamic multi-platform distribution campaigns using film and new media. Lisa's current career integrates a commitment to social change with an extensive background in film, television, and commercial production. As a founding partner of Brave New Films and director of alternative marketing at Focus Features, Lisa pioneered new models of community-based distribution. She has produced successful marketing campaigns for multiple projects including Academy Award-nominated Trouble the Water, Sundance, Tribeca, Hot Docs, and other top festival award-winners including, Crips and Bloods: Made in AmericaDetropiaMarmatoGive Up TomorrowAmerican Winter, and Disturbing the Peace. Lisa has been a featured speaker on impact campaigns and community-based distribution at leading conferences across the country. 

Lisa's husband, Jay, suffered a massive stroke earlier this year, drastically changing every aspect of their lives. Becoming a caregiver and sudden member of the disability community has been an eye-opening experience. A long-time advocate for civil and human rights, Lisa is proud to be part of the Intelligent Lives team, helping to create a lasting positive impact on people's lives. 

LeDerick Horne, Youth Engagement Consultant

LeDerick Horne

Labeled as neurologically impaired in third grade, LeDerick Horne defies any and all labels. He’s a dynamic spoken-word poet. A tireless advocate for all people with disabilities. An inspiring motivational speaker. A bridge-builder between learners and leaders across the U.S. and around the word. An African-American husband and father who serves as a role model for all races, genders, and generations.

Melanie Perkins McLaughlin, Consulting Producer

Melanie Perkins Mclaughlin

Melanie Perkins McLaughlin is a documentary filmmaker with over 20 years in film production. She has worked on films for HBO, PBS, ABC, A&E, The Discovery Channel, and The History Channel. Perkins McLaughlin's independently produced 2007 film Have You See Andy? was broadcast on HBO and won a National Emmy Award for Best Investigative Journalism. That same year, Perkins McLaughlin received a prenatal diagnosis: her third child had Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) and a congenital heart defect. Perkins McLaughlin is in development on a feature length documentary (work in progress) Accepting Grace, that shares the experience of life with Down syndrome from a family perspective--including prenatal diagnoses.

Heather Merrill, Archival Research

Heather Merill

For more than 10 years, Heather Merrill has worked as an associate producer and archival and content researcher for documentary film and historical publications. Recent credits included The Raising of America (PBS), An Unexpected History: The Story of Hennessy and African-Americans1913: Seeds of Conflict (PBS), and Dancing at the Crossroads: The Irish Catskills (PBS). 

Kaarin Clausen, Production Assistant

Kaarin Clausen

Kaarin Clausen has worked with Dan Habib for 10 years and has been involved with the production of his films Who Cares About Kelsey?Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our StoriesMr. Connolly Has ALS, and now Intelligent Lives. She is also the Marketing and Promotions specialist for the Inclusive Communities Project at the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability.

Alicia Buono, Social Media Specialist

Alicia Buono

Alicia Buono is proud to be a part of the Intelligent Lives team. She brings almost 20 years of experience in marketing and communications to the project and is primarily responsible for social media. Alicia transitioned her career to the field of disability while becoming a champion for her son who experiences Autism and ADHD. She is also a graduate of the UNH NH/ME LEND program where she developed an even greater passion for disability-based advocacy work. 

Nadia Abouraya


Nadia Abouraya is a graduate of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and the Montgomery College Graduate Transition Program. She works as an office assistant for the Montgomery County government. Nadia loves theatre – both onstage with the inclusive theatre company ArtStream and backstage with several community theatres in the Washington, D.C. area. She also plays tennis in a World Team Tennis league. Nadia’s dad is Egyptian, so she has enjoyed many opportunities to travel to Egypt.

Bryann Burgess

Bryann Burgess

Bryann Burgess is a 2012 graduate of the Carolina LIFE program at the University of South Carolina, where she studied voice, piano, and theatre. She lived on campus, took regular USC classes, and had an internship with Kindermusik International for three years. She is a motivational public speaker and theatre actor, and is also interested in writing poetry and teaching children, as well as advocating for and motivating people to follow their hopes and dreams.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter

Christopher Carter is a 2016 graduate of the George Mason University LIFE (Learning Into Future Environments) Program. He received his Concentration of Study in Sports Management and his Work Specialty Area in Office/Clerical and Customer Service Skills. He previously worked at the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C. as an Office Service Assistant. Chris is currently in the development stage of launching a family-owned online T-shirt company “Life...Live to Win.”

Reid Davenport

Reid Davenport

Reid Davenport is an award-winning documentarian and film editor who makes films about people whose lives speak to broader issues. His films have been shown across the country and around the world, and have gained prominent media attention from NPR, BBC and the “Washington Post.” Reid was recently named a 2017 TED Fellow. He received a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Film & Video from Stanford University in 2016.

John Gionfriddo

John Gionfriddo

John Gionfriddo is a senior in George Mason University's (GMU) LIFE Program (Learning Into Future Environments) and graduated in May 2017 with a Work Speciality Area in Library Services and Office/Clerical. Besides his course work at GMU, John currently works on Capitol Hill as an intern in the Office of Rep. David Valadao and as an Office Assistant at Source America.  Each summer John looks forward to working for Fairfax County's Therapeutic Rec Program and in 2014 was awarded the Jeff Watkins “Volunteer of the Summer” award.

Tia Holmes

Tia Holmes

Tia Holmes is a rising junior at UNC Chapel Hill. She is studying computer science and pursuing a minor in Spanish this summer with a study abroad program in Seville, Spain. Tia was the youngest founding member of the “I am Norm” Campaign and has continued her advocacy work over the past seven years. She has spoken at various conferences by leading workshops and speaking on panels. At UNC, she is a co-chair for the coming school year for a group called “Advocates for Carolina" and an appointee on the Student Technology Advisory Board through student government.

Intelligent Lives

What is intelligence?

Is a 32-year-old man who co-teaches at Syracuse University classes intelligent? What about a 25-year-old woman who charms her way into the job of her dreams? How about a 17-year-old young man whose paintings are exhibited at major universities in Boston? Are they intelligent?

Would your opinion change if you knew that, as recently as the 1970s, all three of these people would have likely been institutionalized and forcibly sterilized?

Academy-Award winning actor Chris Cooper, the narrator of Intelligent Lives, unpacks the United States’ sordid history of intelligence testing, which led to people with intellectual disabilities carrying a clinical label of “moron,” “idiot,” or “feeble minded.”  The three central characters of Intelligent Lives — Micah Fialka-Feldman, Naomie Monplaisir, and Naieer Shaheed — would have been labeled this way had they been born in the first half of the 20th century. Their parents would have been counseled to send their children to live in an institution alongside hundreds or thousands of other people with disabilities. They might have been among the approximately 65,000 Americans forcibly sterilized in order to “improve the stock” of humanity during the U.S. eugenics movement. As recently as 1975, Micah, Naieer, and Naomie would not have had legal access to a public education.

But Micah was born in 1984. Today he is student at Syracuse University with a vibrant social life, a job co-teaching university classes, and a sophisticated grasp of social media — with an IQ of 40. Naieer was born in 1999. He is a talented visual artist and is immersed in general education classes and basketball games at a public high school in Dorchester, MA. Naomie is 25, and she sings and dances in her Providence, RI Creole church alongside her hip-hop producer brother, and she is on the cusp of obtaining her first paid, integrated job.

These three stories will be intertwined with Cooper’s tightly constructed narration about our evolving perspectives on the nature of intelligence. Cooper will also reveal his own connection to the film’s central themes: he and his wife Marianne Leone Cooper had a son, Jesse, whose intelligence was continually questioned because he had cerebral palsy. Jesse died suddenly in 2005 at age 17 from a seizure.

Unlike the film’s central characters, most of the 6.5 million Americans labeled with intellectual disability continue to live isolated lives. Only 17% of students with intellectual disabilities are included in general education and as adults, only 15% are employed.

The film team – which includes executive producer Amy Brenneman, whose teenage daughter Charlotte has a disability – is planning a hybrid release strategy in conjunction with 30+ national partner organizations that will include:

  • Film festival screenings
  • National broadcast
  • Video-on-demand streaming
  • An extensive eduational kit (DVD and digital)
  • Community and conference screenings/discussions
  • A national "take action" campaign
  • Congressional briefings
  • Multimedia excerpts from the film for social media sharing
  • Four short companion films focusing on effective practices in transition for youth with disabilities from secondary school to postsecondary education and/or employment


The Intelligent Lives Project will include:

  • A feature-­length documentary film, which will explore how our narrow views of intelligence have led to the ongoing segregation of people with intellectual disabilities. The film will examine the emerging paradigm in which technology, peers, and other supports enable people with intellectual and other disabilities to engage in competitive employment, inclusive education, and all aspects of community life;
  • A companion 45-­minute documentary film, focusing specifically on youth with disabilities transitioning from high school to employment or post­secondary education;
  • A short preview film, which will be utilized as an educational and advocacy resource, and;
  • Education and outreach materials for educators, employers, youth, families, and other stakeholders.

The film and related educational and outreach materials will be used as resources and public awareness tools to increase educational, social, and employment opportunities for people with labels of intellectual disability. The project will launch in January 2018.

The anticipated audience for this film includes:

  • Educators and transition specialists
  • Employers and businesses
  • Youth with disabilities and their families
  • Higher education staff and faculty
  • Disability advocates
  • Public policy decision makers
  • Community leaders
  • Youth serving organizations
  • General public

The project will inspire viewers to change their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and advocate for broad-based systems change which will:

  • Commit to ensuring that people with disabilities are seen as valued and intelligent human beings with a place in the workplace, general education, higher education, and relationships;
  • Provide the essential supports enabling people with labels of intellectual and other disabilities to thrive;
  • Desegregate and include children and adults with labels of intellectual disability in the mainstream of employment, general education, higher education, and community life; and
  • Highlight the implications of policy changes that could endanger inclusive education and integrated employment.

The Intelligent Lives Project Interim Report - Past, Present, & Future - Fall 2016

Supporters & Partners

Lead Supporter

Mitsubishi Electric Foundation logo

Major Supporters

Additional Supporters

Outreach Partners

Intelligent Lives Project Outreach Partners include: