A family dedicated to inclusion: Janice Fialka and Richard Feldman with their children Michah and Emma.
A family dedicated to inclusion: Janice Fialka and Richard Feldman with their children Michah and Emma.

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Film featuring Michah Fialka-Feldman tackles what “intelligence” really means.

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Kelly Kosek | Detroit Jewish News

Huntington Woods native Micah Fialka-Feldman and his family have faced challenges that only other parents of atypical children can begin to understand. From a young age, he was labeled “neurologically impaired” and told that his “low I.Q.” would prevent him from achieving anything significant in his life, academically or professionally.

For years, Fialka-Feldman and his parents, Janice Fialka and Richard Feldman, fought tirelessly to overcome the stigma and stereotypes surrounding people with intellectual disabilities. Today, Fialka-Feldman, 34, is a teaching assistant at Syracuse University in New York, a disabilities activist who speaks before audiences across the country and a member of the U.S. Presidential Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, appointed by President Obama.

Now, Fialka-Feldman is the subject of a documentary film, Intelligent Lives, by award-winning filmmaker Dan Habib. The film follows three young adults with intellectual disabilities — Michah, Naieer and Naomie — as they navigate high school, college and the employment world, defying society’s perceptions of intelligence along the way.

Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper narrates the film, which includes the personal story and struggles of his late son Jesse, who had cerebral palsy.

Fialka-Feldman’s sister, Emma, a Boston public school teacher and passionate advocate for inclusion in the educational system, also appears in the film. By documenting the struggles and successes of its three protagonists, the film tackles the question of what “intelligence” really means as it challenges the efficacy of traditional I.Q. testing.

Above: A family dedicated to inclusion: Janice Fialka and Richard Feldman with their children Michah and Emma.

The film depicts how Fialka-Feldman’s family, along with his teachers, school administrators and other community members worked together to remove obstacles and pave the way for his future success. This journey is documented in a book written by his mother called What Matters: Reflections on Disability, Community and Love.

“When we knew the film was going to come out, we wanted to tell Micah’s story,” said Fialka, a social worker, national speaker, author and staunch advocate for people with disabilities. “A big message is learning to ask for help with dignity and intention, not apology.”

Fialka is pleased with the response to the film, which has been shown to general audiences across the country and named as a selection at many regional film festivals.

“We have heard from various people about the film opening minds and opening hearts in really powerful ways,” Fialka said. “This is a film that captures the imagination of anyone who wants to create a world where all means all, where diversity may not be easy, but it’s the right thing.”

Watch the trailer

Fialka-Feldman made headlines in 2009, when he sued the Oakland University Board of Trustees for his right to live in the university dorms as a non-matriculating student. After winning the landmark federal lawsuit, he went on to work at Michigan Roundtable in Detroit, where he assisted with workshops and trainings on race, gender and disabilities at local high schools and other venues.

In 2015, he earned a certificate in disability studies from the Syracuse University School of Education, where he co-teaches classes in inclusive education and disability studies and works as an outreach coordinator at the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education.

“In many ways, this film is a way to show that when people are given opportunities, we don’t know what their human potential is and what they are capable of becoming and doing and living,” said his father.

Feldman recently accompanied his son to a showing of the film at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “To see him there being respected, praised and honored as a pioneer in inclusion … it was very powerful.”

Fialka-Feldman, who uses technology for most of his reading and writing, says he enjoyed being part of the documentary, which was filmed over a three-year period.

“It was pretty cool having them following me around,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to share how I moved to Syracuse and how the thing of IQ is just a number. I never thought in my life that I would ever live out of Michigan, but I did; and it’s been pretty cool being at Syracuse University and being in a place that has been doing work in inclusion for a while.”

Watch the trailer

See the Film

Free showings of Intelligent Lives will take place in October. Each screening will be followed by a conversation with Micah, his family, and other professionals and community members.

The book What Matters: Reflections on Disability, Community and Love will be available at each of the film showings and at Book Beat in Oak Park, Amazon.com or through danceofpartnership.com. Learn more about Michah at throughthesamedoor.com.

• Saturday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m., Historic Howell Theatre, 315 E. Grand River Ave., Howell. For tickets, call (517) 579-2355 or visit arclivingston.org/tickets.
• Sunday, Oct. 7, 2 p.m., Berkley High School Auditorium, 2325 Catalpa Drive, Berkley. To register, visit bit.ly/IntelligentLivesMI.
• Thursday, Oct. 18, 5:30 p.m., Wayne State University, McGregor Conference Center, Community Arts Center, 450 Reuther Mall, Detroit. RSVP: https://bit.ly/2OpVPP8. For details, visit bit.ly/2NRYvG8. This event will offer 2.5 social work CEs.
• Tuesday, Oct. 16, 6 p.m., University of Detroit Mercy, 4001 W. McNichols Road, Detroit, Room 115, Life Science Building. For details, email bbrish@comcast.net.
• Tuesday, Oct. 23, 7 p.m., Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, details to be announced.