2024 Hot Docs 'The Ride Ahead': Samuel Habib, 'badass disabled adults' make a roadmap for adulthood

"I want everyone to know that disabled people demand respect and rights," Samuel said

For Samuel Habib from New Hampshire, his goals for adulthood have been to go to college, date and move out of his parents home. But as Samuel explains in the documentary The Ride Ahead (part of the 2024 Hot Docs Festival), which he co-directed with his father, Dan Habib, no one gives you a roadmap on how to be an adult, or a disabled adult.

Samuel has GNAO1 Neurodevelopmental Disorder. As he explained to Yahoo Canada in Toronto, GNAO1 is caused by a mutation in a protein coding gene, which caused his cerebral palsy, epilepsy and speech disorder. There are about 300 people worldwide that have been diagnosed with this disorder. Samuel uses a communication device, gestures, and speech to communicate.

In the film, a feature version of the Emmy-winning New York Times Op-Doc, My Disability Roadmap, Samuel talks to seven "badass disabled adults" on how they successfully navigate adulthood. Creating that roadmap for himself and others.

The people featured in the film are: the late Judy Heumann who is known as the "mother of the disability rights movement" and fellow Americans with Disabilities Act pioneer Bob Williams; Tony-winning actor and singer Ali Stroker; hip-hop artist Keith Jones; autistic, disability justice and queer rights advocate and writer Lydia X.Z. Brown; marathon runner and disability activist Andrew Peterson; and comedian Maysoon Zayid.

"We wanted to focus on people who would be honest and tell it like it is," Samuel said about the mentors he interviewed for The Ride Ahead.

The majority of the crew hired to work on this film are disabled people, which highlights another core component of the film, to have disabled people tell their own stories.

"I don't like that movies and stories about disabled people are often about curing or saving, or even killing the person, because they have a disability," Samuel said. "Or you will see someone with a disability have an average talent at something and people will be 'inspired' and respond to the talent in a way they might not to someone that doesn't have a disability."

"We created this documentary and our impact campaign so that millions of young adults with disabilities will feel more seen and heard, and find their own mentors. As someone who struggles to communicate, this film is incredibly meaningful to me because it is making my experience visible and it is getting my voice, and other's voices heard. ... I learned from my mentors that it's not easy to be an adult with a disability. But one of the best pieces of advice I got was from Maysoon Zayid. ... She said, 'You are not alone. Find your community.' Connecting with the disability community has helped me feel much more confident in myself."

Judy Heumann, Samuel Habib and Dan Habib in
Judy Heumann, Samuel Habib and Dan Habib in "The Ride Ahead" part of the 2024 Hot Docs Festival

Samuel and Dan Habib also don't shy away from showing authentic experiences throughout the film, including an interaction Samuel had with the current U.S. President Joe Biden, who speaks to Samuel like a "child," and even strokes his face. Samuel has a similar interaction with a woman at an airport.

"I want to curse at people who talked down to me, like [the woman] at the airport in the film, but I did not because I'm afraid that people would get mad at me," Samuel said. "But now when it happens, which it does pretty often, I say, 'Talk to me like I'm an adult.'"

"I am learning a lot from people with disabilities, that it's not easy to be an adult with a disability. But I'm learning from them how to be a better disability rights advocate for my life and for other people with disabilities."

In another moment, we see what happens during travel, when Samuel's wheelchair appropriately on planes, resulting in damage. For example, on the flight to Indianapolis to interview Peterson, Samuel's wheelchair was turned on its side, both ways. It's serious problem for someone uses a wheelchair.

"I don't think people fully understand ... how literally life threatening it is for someone to not have access to a wheelchair," Dan Habib stressed. "This chair is extremely custom built for Samuel's body, ... if you don't have it you develop bedsores, injuries, bruises."

"On one hand, I don't think they realize how significantly damaging it is to someone's health and well-being to damage the wheelchair, let alone to their freedom of movement and their freedom of life, and work. People lose work when they had their wheelchair damaged. ... There's just obviously not enough training. When they just turn [his] wheelchair on the side, ... how could you not think that's going to do damage?"

Samuel Habib in
Samuel Habib in "The Ride Ahead"

Something that comes through particularly effectively throughout The Ride Ahead is Samuel's humour. He has some hysterical one-liners and it really feels like we're getting a sense of his personality. That's amplified by the humour that a lot of the people in The Ride Ahead have.

"Every film I've ever made, I try to put a lot of humour in, because I just feel like it's an incredibly valuable entry point for people to think about and understand some pretty difficult and intense topics," Dan Habib said. "You have to be able to laugh. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. You have to be able to laugh as a community."

Ultimately, Samuel's goal for the film is that the general public will stop "talking down" to disabled people and get an understanding of ableism.

"I want everyone to know that disabled people demand respect and rights, and I want other young adults with disabilities to have the same opportunities that I've had for health care, inclusive education, college, assistive technology, jobs, making friends, advocacy and independent living," Samuel said. "I hope parents who will watch this film will see that they should include their kids in everything, like my family has done, and I hope schools and colleges who watch this film will commit to include disabled students alongside their non-disabled peers."

"This film will help people understand how to talk to me and other people with communication challenges. Be patient and do not talk down to me. Ask me how I best communicate. Slow down the pace of the conversation to create more space for me to contribute. If you don't understand me, ask me to repeat what I said. If I'm typing on my device, don't start another conversation. Please wait for me to finish."

Samuel also highlighted that young people with disabilities who have seen the film have said they have the same questions about, "dating, sex, moving out of their own family's home, how to respond when people talk down to them, work and college," which "means a lot" to the filmmaker.