Hiram College

Written by Jory Gomes ’18

This week Hiram College’s Department of Psychology and Center for Literature and Medicine hosted DJ Saravese for a documentary screening and panel discussion on both the challenges, and benefits, of inclusion and representations of people with autism—especially among nonspeaking individuals with autism. The documentary, Deej, focuses on D.J. Saravese, a graduate of Oberlin College who is a an advocate and activist focused on building inclusivity for nonspeaking people. After a screening of this movie, D.J. was joined by three panelists—Dobromir Gospodinov, a Hiram alumnus from the class of 2012 who worked as D.J.’s aide at Oberlin and was featured in the film, Beth Thompson, MSSA, LSW, a Hiram alumnus from the class of 2004 who is the program director of Milestones Autism Resources, and Wendy Duke, the founder and co-director of the Center for Applied Drama and Autism. In his time at Hiram, he also visited professors Amber Chenoweth’s and Brittany Jackson’s team-taught interdisciplinary class titled “Exploring Ability and Disability through Performance: Autism Spectrum Disorder” and Jackson’s biomedical humanities course “Autism Spectrum Disorders” to discuss what it is like to be a nonspeaking autist, and the virtues of inclusion.

Melissa Johnson ‘18, a student in the team-taught interdisciplinary class, reflected on the discussion and said that “D.J. opened my eyes to the way we, as neurotypical individuals, have a one-track sort of mind. We value verbal [or speaking] communication and set it as the standard for judging intelligence.” Melissa then asserted that many people with autism have “the ability to pay attention to greater detail and be more in tune with their senses” and through this often “have a great deal of talents.” She is not hesitant to point out that “even in awe of those talents, we describe them in words properly suited for machines and objects. Depersonalization and dehumanization of individuals with disabilities are built into our language, norms, and social constructs.” This is an important takeaway from D.J.’s message—we must recognize the ways in which neurotypical individuals are privileged in our society, and work to make spaces inclusive of people who are autistic and/or nonspeaking.

In discussing this, Melissa said that she wants “people to know how important it is to listen to the voices of the silenced, the outcasted, and the marginalized. Sure, D.J. is nonspeaking, but that’s not the reason we haven’t heard him. We haven’t heard it because we have chosen not to listen. Maybe because it’s easier, maybe because listening would require us to step out of our comfort zones. But there is so much for us to listen to and grow from.” Melissa reflected on the class presentation, documentary screening, and panel discussion, saying that we need to always remember the emotional burden that nonspeaking people and people with autism often feel. Especially for someone like D.J. who was assumed at birth to be incompetent, it is not uncommon for nonspeaking people and people with autism to feel like burdens to their families. In his class presentation, D.J. stated that “You think I don’t feel anything at all, but I actually feel too much.” Melissa commented how this quote “hinted at our failure to recognize him and others as people”

Jenni Heid ‘18, also a student in the team-taught interdisciplinary class that D.J. visited during his time on campus,  found D.J.’s point about confronting those who don’t understand autism to be the most impactful. In his in-class discussion, D.J. discussed how “when he meets someone who doesn’t understand autism or doesn’t understand nonspeaking individuals, he gets mad, then sad, then glad.” Naturally, he is upset whenever people lack the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be autistic, or what it means to be nonspeaking—but, he emphasized that this always makes him glad in the end, because it means that he can make a difference, it means that he can help them understand what it is like to be a nonspeaking individual with autism. In the trailer for Deej, D.J. reads “my senses always fall in love, they swoon, they lose themselves among one another’s arms, yours live alone like bachelors, like bitter slanted rhymes whose marriage is a sham.” This quote perfectly displays his point that nonspeaking persons aren’t nonverbal or noncommunicative, they’re just that—nonspeaking. In the class discussion he talked about how technology “is gold” in its abilities to help both nonspeaking people and people with autism find ways to communicate through writing, and text-to-speech programs.

The other point that D.J. made is that “nonspeaking people are fresh thinking and are not alone, let us learn and teach you about another way of being.” He wants nonspeaking people to be included in spaces where they traditionally might not be, so that their unique voices and perspectives can help people come to a better understanding of what it means to be differently-abled. This is something that D.J. hopes to do in his work on inclusion and social activism. In reflecting on these comments, Timothy Hatfield ‘17 was inspired by D.J.’s assertion that he is not free until everyone who is nonspeaking is free. This is a key takeaway from D.J.’s visit to Hiram. When doing work for marginalized populations, we have to set our sights on total liberation. We have to keep working until every member of that population is equally free. To do this, D.J. called upon those listening to “plant the seeds of inspiration in your front yard, so that others can be inspired by yours actions.”

To learn more about D.J. Saravese and his documentary, Deej, go to www.deejmovie.com.