Take-Home Final Exam: Autistic Linguicism

Irene Andrade

ENGL 384

Dr. Foss

December 9, 2021

Word Count: 1052

Autistic Linguicism

What is more important, what someone says or what someone does not say? Let us reconceptualize this. What do you imagine when you are asked this question, someone speaking verbally, someone speaking non-verbally, and/or someone not speaking whether verbal or non-verbal? Often times as a society, we place so much emphasis on verbal languages that we forget the importance of non-verbal languages and their meaning. When certain groups like this are shadowed, we find that we start to invalidate experiences they may be subjected to. Many autistic people are identified as non-verbal, meaning they do not verbally speak the predominant language of their home, and this can be the case for a variety of reasons. In this paper, we will examine different works by non-verbal and alternatively-communicating autistic authors, and how autistic people and the linguicism they face are shadowed by the importance society as a whole places on verbally speaking abled bodies.

While linguicism, coined by linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas to describe several forms of discrimination on the basis of language, is usually associated with xenophobia and people who do not speak the predominant language in certain spaces, here I am suggesting that linguicism can extend to oppress non-verbal autistic people and those who “speak” differently than other people would assume. This matter becomes more complex when you have some intersectionality. For example, Ralph James Savarese, in his essay “Toward a Postcolonial Neurology: Autism, Tito Mukhopadhyay, and a New Geo-poetics of the Body” analyzes author Tito Mukhopadhyay’s works in order to explain postcolonial neurology, and its implications of Mukhopadhyay’s identities and writing. Mukhopadhyay is an Indian man who was diagnosed with non-verbal autism when he was young and has written many critically acclaimed books throughout his life. R.J. Savarese pulls on Mukhopadhyay to show the postcolonial perspective of pathologizing certain aspects like his brain and its function (275). Postcolonialism can also be used to understand linguicism and its effects on non-verbal autistic people such as Mukhopadhyay himself:

The sometimes wildly metaphoric language of nonspeaking autistics² makes potential       allies of neurotypical poets, whose common mission is to re-present the world in a way      that resists and reformulates hegemonic expression. In the hands of someone as skilled as Mukhopadhyay, English is at once familiar and unfamiliar: an autistic hybrid of Hindi, Bengali, and British and American English. (275)

Postcolonialism therefore affects Mukhopadhyay’s life through his ethnicity, but also his autism, and all forms of expression whether verbal or non-verbal. Additionally, R.J. Savarese joins Stuart Murray’s argument that Mukhopadhyay was at one point used as a token by the Cure Autism Now (CAN) organization as a person who “overcame” his linguistic “deficits” (276). This tokenism is partly branched from linguicism in the way that CAN is not able to recognize that Mukhopadhyay is instead multi-lingual in verbal and non-verbal ways.

Autistic authors have been known to speak out about the difficulties of being non-verbal or alternatively-communicating in a verbal world. Additionally, part of the rest of this argument is not only how people do not see the importance in communication between verbal and non-verbalness, but also how dehumanized non-verbal autistic people are. The late autistic writer Amelia “Mel” Baggs, expresses in their essay “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” how they feel people have focused on their linguistic “absence” and assumed their life was monotonous because they were non-verbal and autistic. Baggs states, “If I were merely a speaker of a foreign language, then I might be able to find ways to translate between my system of patterns and another’s categories, but as far as language goes, I am something closer to a speaker with a foreign brain,” showing how they perceive themselves as communicating in a completely different way than verbal people would typically assume. Later in the piece Baggs says, “Someone once saw a photograph of me and said that he felt sorry because I would never know the richness of life that he knows. But I wonder if he is capable of looking around and seeing shapes and colors instead of objects and of mapping the patterns of those shapes and colors.” Not holding someone’s life to the standard of someone else’s simply because of an identity or a characteristic is the crux of dehumanization, and linguicism follows this as it is partly also about how Baggs and others cannot “speak their language”. This is one way how non-verbalness has been shadowed by verbal speaking able bodies.

Lastly, we will look into David James “DJ” Savarese’s piece “Communicate With Me” to evaluate other effects of linguicism and microaggressions together. DJ Savarese describes himself as an alternatively-communicating autistic person, so he is identified as such throughout the rest of this essay. DJ Savarese recounts “Most kids choose not to talk to me at all…Recently I surveyed some of my close friends and discovered that most people aren’t sure how to talk freely to me.” His peers choosing not to talk to him is a microaggression, and the way society has not prepared his peers on how to approach him to ask how they can best communicate with him is one systemic effect of ableism and linguicism. His writing shows how much more inclusive our society could be for everyone if we could allow for people to speak for themselves whether through the predominant verbal way of speaking or not.   

As a disclaimer, I want to say that in this essay I am attempting to refocus different autistic people’s experiences with language and as many of these authors state, not any one of their points is meant to attribute to the entire group of autistic people or their community. It goes without saying that I am not autistic nor am I in the autistic community, so I am also not trying to put in my own thoughts as an autistic experience. Additionally, I do not know what causes speaking “deficits” in certain autistic people, but quite frankly, at this point, it does not matter so much. So many autistic people and especially autistic people of color are affected worldwide by ableism and linguicism. It should not matter whether certain children will be able to grow up speaking the predominant spoken language of their home, but rather whether they will be able to grow up safely at all.

I pledge – Irene Andrade

Works Cited

Baggs, Amelia. “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” Disability   Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1, 2010. www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/1052/1238. Accessed 9 Dec 2021.

Savarese, David James. “Communicate With Me.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1,     2010. www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/1051/1237. Accessed 9 Dec 2021.

Savarese, Ralph James. “Toward a Postcolonial Neurology: Autism, Tito Mukhopadhyay, and a New Geo-poetics of the Body.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 4       no. 3, 2010, pp. 273-289. www.doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2010.23.

Major Paper, Irene Andrade, Capitalism as a Disadvantage to the People

The recent trend and obsession over Squid Game, a Netflix original series featuring contestants who are in debt and play a series of deadly child games to win monetary prizes, has led some viewers to revisit the idea of how capitalism can affect peoples’ entire lives. For a stringent minority of people in the United States, capitalism affects them in a way where they have the privilege to attain various luxuries and some of the best living conditions, but this is not the case for the majority. An overwhelming amount of the majority in this position are historically marginalized people, who have since this country’s beginning seemed to have been disadvantaged by this economic system. Therefore, U.S. capitalism systemic profits off of and disadvantages historically marginalized identities such as people of lower socioeconomic status, people of color, and people with disabilities.

Capitalism was pervaded into the United States during its origins, and its developments have led to generations of oppression and discrimination towards people of color, lower class people, and disabled people. Capitalism is defined by the Oxford Languages Dictionary as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit rather than by the state”. It is a system the United States still follows today except to an even greater degree. Capitalist rhetoric has made it so that people stereotype marginalized people as people with individual problems instead of blaming the system itself. In David Braddock and Susan Parish’s chapter “An Institutional History of Disability”, they note how disabled people among other groups of people have always historically been discriminated against in the United States, “In the American colonies, and later in the United States, persons with impairments were often perceived to menace the economic well-being of the community.” (13). This early rhetoric has maintained since this time period, and has only grown since the industrialization period. You can see how these beliefs have affected groups of people today through the results of their poverty rate compared to White able-bodied people. Both Indigenous and Black people were at the highest poverty rate in 2020 (25.4% and 20.8% respectively) compared to any other racial minority and also compared to White people (10.1%), and in 2019 people with disabilities were at 25.9% poverty rate compared to the 11.4% poverty rate of people without disabilities (Poverty USA; Elflein). In 2002, authors Ravi Malhotra and Marta Russell in their article “Capitalism and Disability” stated that “In the US, 79 percent of working-age disabled adults say they would prefer to work, yet in 2000 only 30.5 percent of those with a work disability between ages sixteen and sixty-four were in the labor force and only 27.6 percent were employed” (2). Malhotra and Russell, through this quote, provoke us to think about how this may not be an individual issue as capitalist stereotypes may try to persuade, but rather a systemic one as proposed in this paper.  

Intersectionality, a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, can be used to see how disability and other marginalized identities’ experiences become “compounded” when added to other factors that implicate a person’s economic situation. For example, in The Right to Maim by author Jasbir Puar, they assert “”Hands up, don’t shoot!” is not a catchy slogan that emerges from or announces able-bodied populations. Rather, this common Black Lives Matter chant is a revolutionary call for redressing the debilitating logics of racial capitalism.” (xxiii). This quote encapsulates a challenge the Black Lives Matter movement arranged against police brutality which formed out of a historic use to protect private businesses, stop unions, and continually oppress Black people. However, it also captures an argument of the perspective of the way in which capitalism immobilizes minority groups such as Black people. It gives an intersectional scope of this systemic harm.  Additionally, in another article “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory”, author Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes several facets of understanding feminism with an approach towards disability. Garland-Thomson describes both how one may view being a woman as disabling within a sexist society, but also describes other more intersectional consequences of capitalism, “Images of disabled fashion models are both complicit and critical of the beauty system that oppresses all women” (271). Likewise, authors Mitchell and Snyder in the introduction of “The Biopolitics of Disability” add to this argument by stating that the market and the consumers it makes out of citizens of this nation are what keep capitalism running, “Along with normalizations of racialized, sexualized, and gendered modes of being, neoliberal marketplaces produce modern formations of disability as an increasingly malleable form of deviance tamed for the good of the nation as a potential participant in the inflows and outflows of globalization.” (17). Ultimately, all intersectional identities experience compounding forms of oppression because capitalism can consume all that it wants out of each marginalized identity and in other cases it can immobilize massive groups of people. In this way, it is producing a great disadvantage to marginalized people by targeting the multiple identities they may have.

Institutions such as nursing homes and jails make money off of disabled people who “need their help” mostly justified through the medical model of disability. The medical model, coined by psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, explains how disabilities are a disadvantage to individuals and therefore must be pathologized in order to treat or cure them. Malhotra and Russell state, “disability is a socially created category derived from labor relations, a product of the exploitative economic structure of capitalist society: one which creates (and then oppresses) the so-called disabled body as one of the conditions that allow the capitalist class to accumulate wealth.” (2). Putting people into these institutions limits their agency and freedom in life, but it also limits their class mobility. Braddock and Parish recognize this issue and claim “developed nations also must confront…the continuing segregation of millions of persons with disabilities in nursing homes, institutions, and other segregated settings throughout the world” (53). A fact sheet by the Americans with Disabilities Act Participation Action Research Consortium (ADA-PARC) shows the amount of working age people with disabilities state by state that live in nursing homes, with the highest amount being 19,069 in Illinois to the lowest being 343 in Alaska. According to Frédéric Michas on Statista, the majority of nursing homes have been for-profit for the last decade, there has been a sharp increase over the years in for-profit jails, prisons, and detention centers where hundreds of thousands incarcerated and detained have disabilities, and other historic institutions like psychiatric hospitals which have also been mostly for-profit (Gotsch 9; Sarrett; Kim; Michas). These institutions have not only profited off of people’s disabilities, but have also ignored their disabilities, taken away their human rights, and have harmed them to various degrees. As author Douglas Baynton in their book Defectives in the Land notes, “Eugenic institutionalization, sterilization, marriage laws, even euthanasia were portrayed as benefiting not only the larger society but the affected individuals and their families.” (6). This adds on to how the discriminatory rhetoric discussed earlier realizes itself into harmful beliefs and actions through our society systemically.

U.S. capitalism also maintains a rigid power structure that enforces immobilizations of marginalized groups. For example, Puar theorizes that:

Debilitation as a normal consequence of laboring, as an “expected impairment”; is not a    flattening of disability; rather, this framing exposes the violence of what constitutes “a normal consequence.” The category of disability is instrumentalized by state discourses of inclusion not only to obscure forms of debility but also to actually produce debility a sustain its proliferation (xvi).

However, in our current day it is not within America itself that we see most of the debilitation through work, but rather in other countries where workers are exploited through international work trade agreements. Michael Davidson’s article “Universal Design: The Work of Disability in An Age of Globalization” supports this argument by stating “The increased presence of depression among female maquiladora workers along the Mexico/U.S. border or cancers among agricultural workers in the California Central Valley must be linked to labor and migration in export processing zones following the passage of NAFTA.” (119). Not only is it a “normal consequence” for people to become debilitated by work, but most inside and outside the U.S. are not supported if anything debilitates them outside of work. In 2019 David U. Himmelstein et al. published a study on how medical bills and illness-related work loss were two of the biggest contributors to bankruptcy for people with disabilities (432). There is also a risk of completely losing a job when someone becomes disabled, and this is also a listed argument in Malhotra and Russell’s article, “Industrial capitalism thus created not only a class of proletarians but also a new class of “disabled” who did not conform to the standard worker’s body and whose labor-power was effectively erased” (3). Persons with disabilities are in such low economic stance because they have been excluded from the work force for generations and/or exploited for low labor wages. This has only furthered their inability to gain better class mobility, get any sense of independence, or better living conditions within this system.

Sometimes, it is easy to get lost and feel so small against issues as big as the systemic oppression of American capitalism. It is hard to think of its effects on our communities, and how we can move forward when something is so ingrained in our day-to-day life. There is no immediate solution, and any activist could tell you that. However, there is a greater hope and sense of clarity when one can join with their community and fight against their daily oppressors together rather than fighting each other.  

Works Cited

Baynton, Douglas C. Introduction. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age            of Eugenics. Chicago, Ill: U of Chicago, 2016. 1-10. Print.

Braddock, David & Parish, Susan. “An Institutional History of Disability.” Disability at the         Dawn of the 21st Century and the State of the States. Ed. David Braddock. Washington             D.C.: American Association on Mental Retardation. 2002, 11-54 . Print.

Davidson, Michael. “Universal Design: The Work of Disability in an Age of Globalization.” The             Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006.          117-130.

Elflein, John. “Poverty Rate Among People With and Without Disabilities in the U.S. from 2008             to 2019.” Statista. Ströer Media. 19 Mar. 2021. Web. 23 Nov. 2021

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” NWSA    Journal. 14. 3 (2002): 257-271. Print.

Gotsch, Kara & Basti, Vinay. “Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration U.S. Growth in Private            Prisons.” The Sentencing Project Research and Advocacy for Reform. Web.

Himmelstein, David U et al. “Medical Bankruptcy: Still Common Despite the Affordable Care             Act.” American journal of public health vol. 109,3 (2019): 431-433.             doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304901

Hwang Dong-hyuk. Squid Game. Netflix, 2021, www.netflix.com.

Kim, Sarah. “The Forgotten: Disabled and Detained at the Border.” Forbes. 28 Jun. 2019. Web.

Malhotra, Ravi & Russell, Marta. “Capitalism and Disability.” Socialist Register. 38. (2002): 1-   11. Print.

Michas, Frédéric. “Distribution of Nursing Homes in the United States From 2003 to 2019, by     Ownership Type.” Statista. 23 Mar. 2021. Web.

Michas, Frédéric. “Number of Psychiatric Hospitals in the U.S. in 2019, by Operation Type.”       Statista. 20 Oct. 2020. Web

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Introduction. The Biopolitics of Disability:       Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment. Ann Arbor: U of      Michigan, 2015. 1-32. Print.

“Percent of Working-Age People with Disabilities Still Living in Nursing Homes.” Americans     with Disabilities Act Participation Action Research Consortium. Americans with          Disabilities Act National Network, Jul. 2020. Web. 23 Nov. 2021.

Puar, Jasbir K. “Preface: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” Preface. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke UP, 2017. x-xxiv. Print.

Sarrett, Jennifer. “US Prisons Hold More Than 550,000 People With Intellectual Disabilities –     They Face Exploitation, Harsh Treatment.” The Conversation. 7 May. 2021. Web. “The Population of Poverty USA.” Poverty USA. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2021.

Irene Andrade’s Class Summary for 9/21/21

The class started off with its regular segment of announcements, which consisted of upcoming disability awareness month events in October, an extra credit lecture by Rachel Wonderlin on Dementia care, and one last note about intersectionality from the previous class theory piece, Chris Bell’s “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” Large-group discussions revolved around which characters are read as disabled in Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” and small-group discussions explored the effects of being read as disabled among other topics through our assigned poetry pieces.

Professor Foss prompted the class discussion with a question, whether there are “Particular things about Eva that should not just be read in the lens of disability, but disability, race, and poverty,” echoing his last note about intersectionality from the Chris Bell piece. The class was initially quiet, processing the themes of disability in addition to race and poverty enveloped in the experiences of Sula’s characters. After getting no direct responses to the question, Professor Foss quoted an older book from today’s theory piece author, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, “physical disability neither diminishes nor corrupts Eva’s character, rather confirms Eva’s power. [Eva is a] rewritten Black eve striding the realms ordinary and unordinary, her legs signal presence and empowerment.” From there, Megan pointed the class to today’s theory piece by Rosemarie Garland Thompson, “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory”, she quoted “Female, disabled, and dark bodies are supposed to be dependent, incomplete, vulnerable, and incompetent bodies.” (3). Megan’s and Professor Foss’s evidence persuaded many in the class to acknowledge their points, and as a result several agreed that Eva truly went against the grain of the stereotypes set onto Black disabled women. Professor Foss added that other people have read Eva as a deity or goddess figure despite her disability and asked the class whether they agreed. The class, however, did not directly answer this question even with the proposed evidence of Eva having the “power” in the book to name others, be worshipped by others, and having the decision to kill others such as her own son, Plum, without consequence. Multiple students expressed that they believed Eva was powerful in the sense that her physical disability did not stop her from doing things (e.g., jumping out a window to save her daughter, or taking care of her loved ones for so long), but no one voiced whether she could be directly considered a deity the way Professor Foss described. With no direct responses to the question, Professor Foss made one last remark, postulating that Eva could also be seen as both a deity figure and a disturbingly powerful figure.

While the group could decide whether Eva’s disability weakened or empowered her, they soon realized that this was not the same case for Shadrack’s character. The class seemed to unanimously agree that Eva’s character was much more easily integrated into the community of the Bottom because her prominent disability for much of her life was a physical one. Her missing leg allowed for her to be read as physically disabled even though we concluded that it still did not hinder her from being a strong character. This opened a short discussion on invisible versus visible disabilities, and how they are regarded comparatively. Rachel suggested that with Eva, it was easy to read how it was not her physical disability that made her disagreeable to the readers and other characters, but rather her personality and attitude. In contrast, Shadrack’s disability cannot be so easily demarcated from his personality to the reader. Rachel commented that only Eva’s attitude can be drawn up to comparison to Shadrack’s “madness”, not her disability. Professor Foss describes Shadrack as a “pied piper”, offering strong, but delusive enticement to the community members of the Bottom. Students discussed how the scene where Shadrack calls everyone to the construction site does not help his trustworthiness to readers, and could potentially perpetuate the “warning of messing with people like him”. The discussion of Shadrack’s behavior that added to his inability to be trusted by both readers and the community lead us into the topic of the way he was regarded by Sula in particular. Professor Foss noted that Sula was the only character that seemed to acknowledge Shadrack as a person compared to other community members. However, the class noted how Sula’s death in coincidence of her final discussion with Shadrack, also did not help his character distinction between his personality and disability by potentially sealing her fate.

At this point, Professor Foss posed the question of whether Sula’s birthmark (and fingertip) could be read as a disability, and quotes back to Thomson’s piece on freakery and how some may be read as disabled due to “physical markers or indications”. Much of the class voiced that they could understand how this perspective could be validated given the history of birthmarks being viewed as negative things such as a “witches mark” or cosmetic imperfections when visible. Professor Foss brought back the idea of intersectionality and inquired whether Sula’s personality can be distinguished from her potentially disabling birthmark. He followed this with another point from an older piece by Thomson which suggested that Sula’s birthmark and fingertip are “hyperlegible text from which her community reads her hopes and point of reference for social boundaries, pariah and mark of social order,” and that this seems to be just a few of the many “evils” that are attributed to her character. In this way, Sula’s experiences seem similar to both Eva and Shadrack. Sula’s personality may be easier to distinguish from her personality due to her read physical disability, yet her lack of integration to the community may have been due to her other social identities, like Shadrack. The students concluded that her birthmark has heavy implications of ostracization and closely relates to how neoliberalism persuades consumers to get rid of this imperfection according to current monetary beauty standards.

Finally, we were called into small groups to discuss 4 previously assigned readings: “Until” by Ayisha Knight, “Hypoesthesia” by Laurie Clements Lambeth, “Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquian” by Jonh Lee Clark, and “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window” by Joy Harjo. One of the most prominent themes of “Until” for all groups was the overcoming of social norms into self-love. The author was read as disabled because she is Deaf, but many groups noted her feelings of “not disabled enough,” and noticed how powerful and confident her signing was now that she was able to express herself past the social norms of disability. With “Hypoesthesia”, one of the most prominent features my group and I noticed was how well the author was able to depict the experience of disassociation through the format of the poem. Many other groups also noticed the disassociation of the narrator and, naturally, attributed it to the assault. They also referred to how some may read the narrator as deviant from the “sexual norm” and pathologize their behavior. That deviancy can be read as a disability and is treated pathologically in today’s American society. All groups noted how people make spectacles out of disabled people that can do “mundane” things, such as cook for oneself, for John Lee Clark’s “Deaf Blind” poem. All groups also noted the juxtaposition of being a spectacle to being a “nobody” because the narrator was just doing what everyone else can do, but under the light of a Deaf-blind person. Professor Foss later in large group noted a scholar who called this phenomenon “inspo-porn”. For “The Woman Hanging From the Thirteenth Floor Window”, some groups seemed confused as to what exactly was happening within the poem, but most seemed to understand that there was a incongruence to the way the narrator identified themselves and what was happening in their life.

Ultimately, the class came to conclusions about how characters’ disabilities from Toni Morrison’s “Sula” are read, and other major themes through previously assigned poems which were discussed through small group in this class period. Our discussions showed how students were able to read different characters’ and narrators’ disabilities and their social implications according to our view of social norms. However, the group was also able to explore these implications along the lines of intersectionality, considering not only each characters’ disability, but also class, gender, race, etc. Following how these people may be read as disabled, along with how this may affect or be affected by their other social identities, lead many to wonder how exactly this affected each person’s personal identities, and how we could distinguish the social from the personal.

9/21/21 Group Activity Notes


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