Maureen Feighan: Being smart is about more than an IQ test

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

The first time my daughter’s IQ was tested I fretted like a high-schooler taking a college entrance exam. It felt like her life – and mine – depended on it. 

She was 2.

My husband and I worried and stewed before our appointment because the outcome would essentially forge the path for her schooling going forward. We studied up on some of the skills on which she’d be tested. We agonized over whether she’d be able to put plastic rings on a stacker.

The day of her “test,” the school district psychologist asked my daughter, who was born with a rare genetic condition that affects her growth, development and cognitive abilities, to flip through a book and point to certain pictures. My heart sank. She couldn’t identify pictures and couldn’t point.

But then the ring stacker arrived. My sweet little girl, all 12 pounds of her at the time, put her little fat fingers together and lowered several rings on it without any help. My husband and I beamed, the nausea subsiding. Thank God for the stacker, we thought.

We’ve come a long since then. My daughter is almost 11 and goes to a special needs school in Oakland County. Her IQ has been tested at least twice since that day – always with pretty dismal results – but I’m learning to let it go as a parent. My daughter is smarter than any test will give her credit for.

A  documentary released earlier this fall challenges the concept of intelligence – and how it’s determined – as it follows three  intellectually disabled young adults navigating school, work and life.

One of those young adults is a Micah Fialka-Feldman, who went to Berkley High School and is from Huntington Woods. “Intelligent Lives,” directed by award-winning documentarian Dan Habib who has a teenage son with an intellectual disability, will be screened Tuesday at the University of Detroit Mercy's Life Science Building and Thursday at Wayne State University’s Community Arts Auditorium ( go to for more details).

IQ testing is daunting for any special needs parents, but comes with a caveat. As helpful as it may seem, how do you truly test someone that has a hearing impairment or other challenges? Someone who is nonverbal? Can you accurately gauge how “intelligent” they are?

You can’t.

Janice Fialka, Micah’s mother, bristles even at the word assessment. 

“I call it discovering,” says Fialka, an author, social worker and inclusion advocate. “Rather than doing an assessment, let’s discover what this person can do.”

Fialka says intelligence isn’t just one thing and that assessments should focus on growing someone’s strengths.

“There are many ways to understand the world,” said Fialka, who still lives in Huntington Woods. “And all people continue to grow and learn and expand their knowledge and their community when they are included in a genuine way.”

My daughter certainly continues to grow and learn in her own way. She still can’t write or read (and likely never will but who knows) but she’s crafty and determined. She knows when her favorite toys have run out of batteries, where the batteries are kept and will hand us both with a screw driver. She can’t talk but we know what she wants loud and clear.

That’ll never be on an IQ test.

But don’t ask my daughter to identify a picture of a cow or a dog. She very well may know but it depends on if she hears you (she refuses to wear her hearing aids) and how cooperative she’s feeling.

Fialka, who has attended screenings for “Intelligent Lives” all over the country, said one of her favorite lines from the documentary is actually from her daughter, Emma, now a teacher.

“You just never know what people can do,” Emma said.