When 3-year-old Samuel Habib was placed in a medically induced coma after post-surgery complications, Samuel’s father, Dan (’87), began taking pictures of Samuel and their family in the hospital. Habib took shots of people hugging and talking, of Samuel crying. One image shows Samuel—who experiences cerebral palsy—lying in bed with a platoon of IV poles towering over his body, a powerful statement on the fragility of the human body.
The photos were part of a profound change that was happening in Habib’s personal and professional life, and they were the beginning of a larger project that eventually became the documentary Including Samuel.
“Samuel’s neurologist suggested to me, ‘Why don’t you tell the story using your journalism and photography background to say what it’s like to be the parent of a child with a disability?’” Habib says. “In the beginning, I did it just to burn off some of the stress and anxiety that I was feeling. But some of those pictures of him in the hospital are in the film. That was how it started.”
Dan Habib began his career at U-M in the art school, but says he wasn’t a great art student. He was talented at photography but “terrible at painting and drawing and sculpture and everything else.” Habib switched majors from art to political science, and he started working at the Michigan Daily, which he calls the “training ground” for his career in photojournalism.
“Working at the Daily was like working at a real newspaper,” Habib says. “It gave me the ability to parachute into people’s lives, to see and experience all of these things that you wouldn’t get to do otherwise and meet incredible people.”
Habib became the photography editor of the Daily during his sophomore year, and he stuck with photojournalism after graduation. His images have appeared in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, and he was a two-time national photography editor of the year with theConcord Monitor newspaper. But when his second son, Samuel, was born in 1999, Habib’s life and work both changed.
When Samuel was less than a year old, a neurologist diagnosed him with a mitochondrial disorder, and Habib says he did what “no parent should do but every parent would do”: He googled it. The first prognosis he read: “Usually fatal.”
Habib ultimately learned that there are thousands of mitochondrial disorders, and Samuel’s variety is not life-threatening. But the disorder caused cerebral palsy, which prevents muscles from communicating accurately with the brain. Including Samuel— released in 2008—documents the family’s process of envisioning Samuel’s future: his life, education, and happiness.
Samuel is a natural star. Whether he is telling jokes in the bathtub or roughhousing with his brother, Isaiah, Samuel’s laughter is contagious. He speaks slowly, but his eyes have that rare quality that allows them to express emotion with absolute clarity. When Samuel feels something—curiosity, joy, focus, hilarity, mischief — the viewer feels it, too.
But putting so much of his family on film wasn’t an easy choice for Habib.
“It was a lot to ask of my family,” he says. “There was honest vulnerability we had to show in order to make the story real, because if I had sugarcoated it or made it look easy for our family, that would have done a disservice to all the other families who are really struggling trying to make sure a child with disabilities is a part of their school and their communities.”
Samuel Habib, 3, smiles at a friend in his preschool class in Concord, NH. This photo originally appeared in Dan Habib's 2008 documentary Including Samuel, which included many personal moments from Samuel Habib's education and family life.
All Boats Rise Together
In Including Samuel and a number of films that he has made since, Dan Habib has documented the issue of inclusive education from all angles, including the perspectives of families, educators, administrators, and students. He follows kids who succeed in inclusive education—like Samuel, a perennial honors student now in ninth grade—and those who struggle.
“I try to show education in a way that’s realistic,” Habib says. “Because it’s a very complex topic. I take on issues that I feel passionately about, topics I feel a light needs to be shined on, but I try to do it in a way that is journalistic in nature, that doesn’t take a superficial look at the topic.”
Habib cites research that shows that on average kids with disabilities are better communicators, get higher marks, and have fewer behavioral problems when they’re included in a general education classroom. What surprises many people, though, isn’t that kids with disabilities do better in inclusive educational settings, but that so-called “typical” kids benefit, too. A recent Vanderbilt University study found that “typical” peers who were struggling academically gained an average of 1.5 letter grades as a result of supporting a fellow student who had a disability.
But there are more important things than good grades, Habib says. Children in inclusive classrooms practice patience, learn to help each other, and get better at meeting each other “exactly where they are.” And the message is getting out.
Room for Everyone
Including Samuel aired nationally on public television in 2009 and has been translated into 17 languages. His new film Who Cares About Kelsey?, which focuses on a student struggling with emotional and behavioral challenges, airs on public television this fall. Habib has shown his films at national and international conferences on disability and education. He attributes his successes as a photojournalist and filmmaker to a strong foundation in critical thinking, which he cultivated at Michigan.
Habib's films include honest portrayals of the difficulties—including a lack of resources, insufficient training, and social stigmatization—facing inclusive education programs across the country. Alana Malfy (above, center) speaks candidly in the documentary Including Samuel about social challenges at her school.
“I have hired and mentored a lot of journalists over the years, and I tell them it’s not just about learning to handle a camera or a microphone or writing; it’s truly about critical thinking and research,” Habib says. “You have to build a body of evidence. You have to present it in a compelling way. And you have to be able to defend it. That’s what I learned at Michigan, and that translates directly into all of the work that I’ve done in journalism and filmmaking.”
Habib’s filmmaking and advocacy earned him an appointment to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, which Habib joins this fall. Established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, the advisory committee works to “support independence and lifelong inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in their respective communities.”
Meanwhile, Habib continues to make films that resist easy answers, fighting for increased access for students with disabilities while acknowledging the very real challenges that students and educators face.
Because it isn’t just about including Samuel, Habib says. It’s about including everyone.