Sometimes I get invited to meet people whose stories are astonishing. The invitations come because I’m a writer. Then again, some invitations arrive because I happen to be blind. It’s rare to be invited somewhere because I’m both. But not long ago I was invited to become an “honorary wretch” by a group of non-speaking writers. I flew to Burlington, VT to meet the stars of a new documentary film “Wretches and Jabberers” and we typed together with our multiple talking computers in a downtown office building.
Imagine "touch typing" mostly with one finger, hunching over every word, each letter a singular labor. Soon those letters create a bigger picture like the tiles of a mosaic. Suddenly I was in "a happening"–a cognitive, inter-active jam session with four men and one woman, each with an electronic keyboard. Stories emerged about loneliness and about being misunderstood. (People with Autism can tell you things about childhood that will curl your hair.) But there were also many joys for this was a kind of autistic rock and roll session. And it was a reunion: all the writers met while being filmed by Oscar winning director Gerardine Wurzburg whose afore mentioned documentary “Wretches and Jabberers” has just opened nationwide.
TRACY (from Vermont, looking at HENNA from Finland):
“I am so happy to see all of you here. I can’t believe you are actually here Henna, more than I can say, let’s look to type about this miracle.”
CHAMMI (from Sri Lanka, makes loud noises, leaps out of his seat, then sits back down and writes):
“I’m yelling my joy. I have to do that!”
ANTTI (from Finland, looking at the group):
“Well listen, guys, didn’t we agree on this battle during the filming—we are here for this great thing.”
“I’ve been waiting for this meeting. It has been too long. It is nice we are here.”
“I have readied my battle gear.”
“Well, Antti, we are all here to forge our bond for new perspectives on intelligence…”
We were seated around a long table. We were a picture of neurodiversity with our talking gizmos. It was Stockhausen meets Autism.
I was the blind guy in the band. Quickly our conversation turned to how the general public conceives of non-speaking people as being largely defective, even uneducable. I remembered my own childhood and the struggles I had as a blind kid in public schools in the early 1960’s. I learned by sheer stubbornness, by listening, and by refusing to go away. That story is “legion” among people with disabilities. We’ve all resisted and survived efforts to remove us from the public square.
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 sixty 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 ground breaking study showing just how baseless have been the claims of mental retardation in published articles from 1937-2003. Of the 215 articles reviewed, three-quarters of the claims derived from nonempirical sources, and half of these never referenced empirical data. Moreover, the data that did exist had been gathered twenty-five to forty-five years ago and often from unreliable measures.
A year later a team of scholars at the University of Montreal addressed this problem by using a different vehicle. Michelle Dawson, Isabelle Soulieres, Morton Gernsbacher, and Laurent Mottron substituted the Ravens Progressive Matrices test of fluid intelligence for the standard Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), and the incidence of mental retardation in the autistic sample was significantly lower.
Taking this study further, Thomas Zeffiro and Isabelle Soulières compared how quickly autistic and non-autistic groups completed the Ravens test, and discovered that autistic people were nearly forty percent faster than non-autistic people and with the same error rate. Mottron and Dawson have also written a study of what they call "perceptual acuities" in autism. Describing his research goals where autistics are concerned Mottron has remarked, "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 men from Vermont who seek out other typing autistic people. Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette flew from Burlington to Japan and Sri Lanka. Eventually their quest took them to Helsinki. 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 enormous discomfort so 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 an epic movie.
It was in a Helsinki café that Antti first came up with the dichotomy of “wretches and jabberers”. He typed it into his talking Nokia cell phone and all the autistic people at the table laughed. The term has a vagrant militancy about it: jabberers are the general public, people who talk without much thoughtfulness or soul—they’re the people who think that nonspeaking people have nothing, know nothing and hence lack all potential for epistemology. “Wretches” are the ones who struggle with their words and who are the inheritors of a long dark history of language acquisition and acceptance.
During our session in Vermont I took notes with a new talking IPad. I saw computers and keyboards by Dell, Nokia, Sony, Apple, and customized devices from several cutting edge assistive technology vendors. “AT” is its often called is not only changing the world for people with disabilities, it’s also creating new international communities.
The wretches talked of disability rights and there was a shared and palpable excitement about educating the public concerning autism. Larry Bissonnette who is a painter typed: “Lots of plush chairs pushing our words into the lighted ceiling.”
I couldn’t really see the ceiling but I imagined the words against the skylight. I thought of those words getting loose the way words should. The wretches have a lot of poetry in their pockets and they know how to throw it around which is of course why their movie must be seen.