Intelligent Lives Urges Conversation on Inclusivity at Whitman

Renny Acheson, Staff Reporter

On Oct. 25, members of both the Whitman and greater Walla Walla community gathered in Olin Auditorium for a screening of filmmaker Dan Habib’s documentary Intelligent Lives. Released on Sept. 21, 2018, the catalytic film follows the lives of three Americans with intellectual disabilities. 

Whitman junior Maraena Allen-Lewis organized the screening as a part of an independent sociology study, entitled Disability in Society. Working in conjunction with sociology professor Alvaro Santana-Acuña, Lewis explores both historical and contemporary conceptions of disability and accessibility.

“Prior to Whitman, disability has been a huge part of my life and so coming here, I felt that was really missing, especially in an academic realm,” Lewis says. “One of the reasons why I decided to do this independent study is because in my first two years at Whitman, I had several pretty negative experiences, both in the classroom and in social settings with relation to disability. 

Produced by Chris Cooper, Intelligent Lives questions the historical usage of IQ testing as a metric for intellectual disability and implores audiences to consider the lack of academic programs for intellectually disabled individuals. In 49 out of 50 states, the Stanford-Binet IQ test is utilized as a method of determining intellectual ability, which has also been used as a device to justify race-based pseudosciences and eugenicist practices.

Before the screening, audience members engaged in a video chat call with Micah Fialka-Feldman, one of the three individuals profiled in the film. A close family friend to Lewis, Fialka Feldman told the story of his graduation from Syracuse University with a certificate in disability studies. The film follows both the challenges and successes of Naieer during his high school career, and Naomie, as she enters the workforce as an assistant at a beauty salon.

Of the documentary, junior Natalie Pusch says, “I really liked the personal aspect of it and the fact that it followed the three people throughout the entire film to kind of give a better sense of intimacy with their lives and understanding what goes on.”

The project serves to highlight the significant need for universal practices of inclusivity on the Whitman campus. Lewis plans on sending out a survey to those who attended the film in order to identify gaps in general knowledge around disability.

Of the film, Lewis says “I’m hoping to take that and be able to use it to kind of encroach upon looking at Whitman trying to incorporate some sort of disability studies into our curriculum.”

Along with potential academic inclusivity, the film brings up an important conversation about basic accessibility. Though Whitman has made substantial progress towards accessibility, including adding closed captioning in the realm of communications, assistant director of Disability Support Services Antonia Keithahn acknowledges the unfinished nature of the work:

“I think there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of really being thoughtful about accessibility at large, the various types of people who might be attending an event, how can we think about, prepare for their needs, and actually provide what they need in those spaces, and that’s something we’ve not been successful in as a community, as an institution.”

Both the film and the project highlight how inclusivity must arise from self-reflection in institutions and in society in general. The Intelligent Lives project calls upon all members of the Whitman community to analyze the college’s accessibility to all intelligent lives. Interim vice president for student affairs and dean of the students Kazi Joshua says:

“I absolutely think that it is crucial that in our everyday lives, as we are going back and forth doing what we do as students, staff, and faculty, we should always ask ‘Who is missing from the table or from the room? What are the kinds of diversities that we’re talking about and what are the kinds of diversities that we are not talking about? What kinds of inclusion are we talking about, and who is excluded in the discourse of inclusion?’”