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Of wretches & jabberers

BY GUEST OPINION | MARCH 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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The story of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s dramatic effort to regain her speaking life frames the dilemma of non-speaking people.

Men and women with autism who can’t speak are often believed to be intellectually defective, so much so that insufficient attention has been paid to those who have remarkable cognitive capacities.

Larry Bissonnette, an artist from Burlington, Vt., was institutionalized as a child and, in a story that could out-Dickens Dickens, he was routinely abused by hospital staff. His experience is featured in a new film, Wretches & Jabberers, a documentary about six non-speaking activists from around the world. The Englert Theatre will provide a free screening of the film at 6:30 p.m. today.

The title of the movie comes from an observation by one of its autistic stars, a young Finnish activist named Antti who declares in a memorable scene in a Helsinki café that the world can be divided into two camps: those who imagine people with autism as “wretches” and the wretches themselves who see “normal” people as “jabberers.” Antti’s observation, typed out on a talking Nokia cell phone, is willfully provocative.

The autistic folks believe that “Jabberers” speak automatically, and in turn, their thinking, especially about disabilities, is largely flippant and uninformed. The “Jabberers,” according to Antti, think that autistic people are wretches. Why not, then, become a self-styled, politically awake “wretch”?

The public square is particularly confused about non-speaking people. There is a prevailing view that those who cannot speak are profoundly deficient, even mentally retarded. As disability studies scholar Ralph Savarese has pointed out: “A good deal of what has passed as scientific fact over the last 60 years, whether it is high retardation rates or an innate aversion to the social, turns out to be anything but fact.”

In 2006, Meredyth Goldberg Edelson published a groundbreaking study showing just how baseless have been the claims of mental retardation in published articles from 1937-2003. A year later, University of Montréal scholars Michelle Dawson, Isabelle Soulières, Morton Gernsbacher, and Laurent Mottron substituted the Ravens Progressive Matrices test of fluid intelligence for the standard Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children, and the incidence of mental retardation in the autistic sample was significantly lower. Mottron has remarked about his studies, “I wanted to go as far as I could to show that their perception — their brains — are totally different.” Not damaged. Not dysfunctional. Just different.

It is this difference that “Wretches and Jabberers” discovers. In effect, the film is a travelogue of neurodiversity as the camera follows the journey of two non-speaking activists from Vermont who seek to find other typing autistic people.

It’s a tour that swings from the delightful to the painstaking. Autism is demanding. In Colombo, Larry struggles to walk barefoot in a Buddhist temple — a task that causes him such enormous discomfort that he has to flee.

Add the ordinary cognitive dissonance of travel and the public demands of disability advocacy on an international stage, and you’ve got a sweeping narrative. But always it’s a narrative about disability rights. Wherever the wretches gather, they speak about being misunderstood. They speak with talking computers. Imagine typing mostly with one finger, hunching over every word, each letter a singular labor. Soon the letters create a bigger picture like the tiles of a mosaic. Picture an autistic “happening” — a cognitive, interactive jam session with people who think in different languages, each with an electronic keyboard.

The wretches’ film is about writing. Speaking through machines is autism’s form of rock & roll. Like early rock, it will likely make conformists uncomfortable.

Professor Stephen Kuusisto teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is the author of the memoirs Planet of the Blind and Eavesdropping.


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