A young couple has a second child; a lively, happy little boy. But gradually, it becomes clear that there’s something wrong. He has trouble moving and talking.

Then doctors tell them their child has cerebral palsy and faces a lifetime of daunting challenges, not the least of which is a public school system used to marginalizing kids with disabilities. What do they do?

Well, if you’re photojournalist Dan Habib, you make a film.

“Including Samuel” is Habib’s warm yet impassioned documentary about the way in which his family has changed as it accommodates Samuel’s special needs, and how children like Samuel are gradually being integrated into regular classes.

It might sound like a downer, but it’s not. Making judicious use of footage of the clearly happy and vivacious Samuel and his loving older brother, Isaiah — along with interviews with educators and disabled-rights activists fighting to overcome the traditional stigma associated with “special needs” children in schools — Habib’s film is thought-provoking and optimistic.

Habib will present “Including Samuel” at 1 p.m. Friday at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. (See www.includingsamuel.com for details.)

Of course, in an ideal world, public schools would have unlimited resources to make sure every student has what he/she needs to thrive. But Habib stresses that school budgets already earmark substantial funds for segregated “special ed” and that integrating kids like Samuel into regular classrooms “is not about spending more money, it’s about allocating it properly.”

He also shows that training teachers to adapt their methods to best serve the needs of all students is good for everyone.

“It’s good not just for kids with disabilities, but for all kids and for staff,” Habib says. “School is for all kids. It can be challenging for teachers, but (in speaking to educators in integrated classes) they say, almost without exception, ‘It makes me a better teacher.’ “

And while Habib’s film doesn’t gloss over the complex issues involved, he is adamant that teachers who object, claiming they’re “not trained for that,” are failing at the very essence of the job. He cites Samuel’s teacher, who “was determined to reach every kid in her classroom.”

Habib, who has made his case on “Good Morning America,” NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and to thousands of people at screenings across the country, says he has encountered little resistance to the idea of inclusive classrooms.

“The parents who’ve experienced inclusion are almost uniformly positive,” he says. “They see the powerful lesson that their kid can be friends with anybody, regardless of whether they’re disabled.”

And he adds, “public schools evolve, and that’s good for all kids. It’s about looking at the whole educational environment and training teachers to approach kids who learn in different ways. All these things can benefit all kids.”

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

 


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