CONCORD, NH – Dan Habib thought he had a film that was more than just good or informative or touching. He thought he had one that would change lives.
But Habib had never made a film before, so he didn't really know how "Including Samuel" -- a 58-minute documentary about including children with disabilities into typical classrooms -- would be received after it made its premiere last November at the Concord City Auditorium.
"I had my modest goal, and I had my secret dream," said Habib, the former photography editor of the Concord Monitor. "My modest goal was that it would become a tool within New Hampshire to talk about inclusion in a more informed and innovative way. My secret goal was that it would serve that purpose nationally and internationally and would cross over to the mainstream."
"Including Samuel" quickly gained notoriety and national media attention after additional premieres in Boston and Washington, D.C., making Habib's secret dream a reality in less than year.
The latest testament to that reality is the announcement that "Including Samuel" (www.includingsamuel.com -- click for link) is in the process of being translated into Arabic by Mercy Corps, a global relief and development agency based in Portland, Ore., for outreach and education in Iraq.
"There's a huge disabled population there and all of them are pretty much undervalued," Habib said. "There's not an understanding that people with disabilities can be part of the society in Iraq, and hopefully this film will support change."
Tiana Tozer, People With Disabilities program manager for Mercy Corps Iraq, said the film fills a void in educating the general public in Iraq.
"It's a great resource and we are so lacking in resources in Arabic," Tozer said. "It's introducing a model of inclusion that hasn't been seen in Iraq."
"Including Samuel" is the personal journey of Habib and his family -- his wife, Betsy McNamara, and two sons, Isaiah and Samuel -- told over four years. At the heart of the story is the family's support of Samuel, who has a rare form of cerebral palsy, a disorder that makes it difficult for the brain to control the body's muscles. It's about their efforts to make him part of educational and recreational activities open to kids without physical or emotional disabilities.
Samuel, 8, just entered third grade at Beaver Meadow School in Concord. The school was the subject of a photo essay Habib did for the Monitor in 1991 about its efforts to mainstream students with disabilities. He can appreciate the school's inclusive policies even more now, and immersed himself in a recent project to make the school's playground more accessible.
"In some ways, it all boils down to something that's very selfish: I want the world to be a better place for Samuel," Habib said. "It's very simple, but it's kind of the heart of everything I'm doing."
Habib said his sons have been subtly changed by the film's success.
"Samuel thinks a lot more about the Patriots, the Red Sox, earthquakes, volcanoes and his friends, than he thinks about this film, which is totally the way it should be. Same goes for Isaiah," Habib said. "But that said, they have a sense of the impact it's having. They both have some pride in the fact that their words, their lives are having an impact on people all over the country and the world."
The film tells not only the story of Samuel, but also of four other people with disabilities. There is a balance between the positive and negative aspects of inclusion that reveals Habib's journalistic background. Some of the greatest advocates to emerge from the film are the students without disabilities whom Habib interviews.
The film has been entered in film festivals around the world -- it was recently accepted for an upcoming festival in Moscow -- and has become a training tool for teachers, college students and advocacy groups. Habib figures he has made close to 50 presentations since the film premiered, recently returning from speaking at the Alabama Developmental Disabilities annual conference.
Quinn Barbour, a communications assistant for the Institute for Community Inclusion, calls Habib a great storyteller.
"When you see him speak, you really connect," said Barbour, whose group sponsored the film's Boston screening. "You can tell how important it is to him."
Being an advocate for inclusion led Habib to recently leave the Monitor after 20 years to become filmmaker-in-residence at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.
"I asked myself what would my dream be professionally and it would be to really make the most of this film for at least a year after its premiere and then keep making documentary films about disability issues, so I pitched that to the institute," Habib said.
"It seemed like such a natural match," said Mary Shuh, the institute's associate director. "I think we sometimes miss the larger population of our audience when we're conducting outreach because we're viewed as too academic, not totally accessible. What Dan's film does is open up that message to everyone."
The institute was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to screen the film for free at New Hampshire schools this year. Schools can apply for a screening by contacting the institute at 228-2084.
The impact of the film has also been recognized by the Bubel Aiken Foundation, which will honor Habib and McNamara in October as recipients of its Champions of Change award. Clay Aiken, who graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a degree in special education before gaining fame on "American Idol," co-founded the organization in 2003.
The recipients were selected "for their substantive efforts to extend the boundaries of the human experience to children of all abilities, in keeping with the foundation's mission of supporting communities with inclusive programs and creating awareness about the possibilities that inclusion can bring."
To Habib, those possibilities are endless.
"I really want every school to be welcoming to all kids," he said. "It's all about problem solving. It's about saying this is a value that we embrace, that we want our school to have the diversity of kids of all abilities. I honestly believe that's part of the natural diversity of our society, but a lot of schools are challenged by that, so you have to get together and say how do we do this well.
"And I think that's what the film is doing, allowing people to have that conversation."
And, for Habib, helping start that conversation is a dream worth making real.