Amanda R.’s Take-home Final Examination

Word Count: 1028

A Perspective on Communication and Humanity

It is often made apparent that there is a misguided notion that those who are unable to communicate by conventional means, or in a conventional fashion, are somehow “less than human”. Two autistic voices who have provided readers with their perspective on this matter are Remi Yergeau and Mel Baggs. Yergeau is a self-described “autistic academic” who works as an associate professor at the University of Michigan while additionally contributing to the dialogue surrounding disability through various outlets (Yergeau). Baggs, who unfortunately passed away in April of 2020, was a non-verbal autistic author, blogger, and visionary within the realm of disability studies. Both Yergeau and Baggs have created works that illustrate their experiences as autistic individuals and incorporate ideas surrounding the ties between communication and the perception of one’s humanity. Though they worked independent of one another, Yergeau and Baggs both appear to have aimed to dispel the misconception of autistic communication as being lacking in humanity.

Remi Yergeau, author of “Introduction: Involution” (contained within Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness), uses this piece to express to readers how autistic minds and bodies are frequently mistreated and improperly categorized as “abnormal” and “incapable” if they are not able to conform (or mask conformity) to the norms of society. Additionally, in this same vein, Yergeau notes that the ability to communicate in traditional ways is considered to be a requirement for entry into rhetoric and through rhetoric, entry into a sense of humanity (6). This work by Yergeau addresses unfair generalizations “that deny autistic people their humanity and the chance to define themselves while also challenging cognitive studies scholarship and its reification of the neurological passivity of autistics” (Duke University Press). As Yergeau puts it, “[it] is not uncommon, for example, for rhetoricians to claim that rhetoric is what makes one human… [and] if one is arhetorical, then one is not fully human” (6). In other words:

” Rhetoric comprises how we learn things and how we live. Autism, by contrast, signals the dissolution of such learning. This dissolution is sometimes presented as all-encompassing and at other times is claimed as a matter of degree or severity. We, the autistic, are that which contrasts”

Remi Yergeau, “Introduction: Involution”

What is also important to criticizing this thought process is acknowledging how autism itself is a condition that one does not choose to have, yet it is perceived “as a disorder that prevents individuals from exercising free will and precludes them from accessing self-knowledge and knowledge of human others” (Yergeau 8).

To gain a broader perspective on the perception of the humanity of autistic people, namely autistic people whose characteristics do not meld perfectly well with the common, pre-conceived notion of what “proper” behavior and communication looks like, one may consider looking into reading “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours”, an essay by Mel Baggs that was published in Disability Studies Quarterly. Baggs has been described as the mind behind several “forthright writings and films about being a nonverbal person with [autism who made] an impact in the fields of neurodiversity and disability rights”, to include their aforementioned essay (New York Times). “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours”, among many other works from Baggs, recounted and explored Baggs’s own personal experiences with being both non-verbal and autistic and used these experiences to generate a conversation around what constitutes “proper” or “acceptable” forms of communication (which are founded on entirely faulty ideas of conformity). Additionally, Baggs made a great effort to “[convey] that people who think and communicate in nontraditional ways are fully human, and that humanness is a spectrum, not something that can be reduced to a normal/abnormal dichotomy” (New York Times). The tagline for Baggs’s personal blog, dubbed Cussin’ and Discussin seems to light-heartedly relay this untruthful thought about the humanity of those with developmental disabilities, including non-verbal autistic people, being less than those that are able to vocalize their thoughts aloud by portraying themself as “being human in a world that says [they’re] not” (Cussin’ and Discussin’).

As Baggs put it, “[autistic] people are not a special kind of people set apart from all other people”, as autistic people seek to be seen as “just one of many kinds of people”(Baggs). Baggs placed a heavy focus on the idea of non-verbal communication as indicative of an absence. Referring back to the idea of rhetoric and now language acting as the arbiters of cohesive thought to many, Baggs noted that “language was built mostly by non-autistic people… the most important things about the way [they perceived] and [interacted] with the world around [them] can only be expressed in terms that describe them as the absence of something important” (Baggs). It would be unfair, still, to equate a lack of language with a lack of thought or a lack of connection to humanity. There are additional ways in which people, autistic or not, are able to communicate without the use of verbal language. For instance, communication through the physical was essential for Baggs, as they “[had] many forms of communication in addition to, or instead, of language”, adding that “[they had] a body language… the way [they interacted] with things around [them] at a particular time, compared to how [they] usually [interacted] with them… ways of arranging objects and actions that give clues about where [their] interest [was] directed and in what manner” (Baggs). These non-traditional forms of communication should not be destined to be shunned and unappreciated, as they “are rich and varied forms of communication in their own right, not inadequate substitutes for the more standard forms of communication” (Baggs).

Ultimately, unconventional modes of communication are not indicative of either an absence of or a deficiency in humanity. Additional forms of communication outside of verbal communication are valid and should not cause their users to be punished simply because non-verbal communication is not what is promoted as broadly acceptable independent of the verbal. Yergeau and Baggs both independently demonstrated a strong understanding of this, which will hopefully work to further chip away at some of the negative stereotypes surrounding autistic communication, non-verbal or not.

“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work”

Works Cited

Baggs, Amanda. “Up in the Clouds and down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours.” Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours, Disability Studies Quarterly, 2010, dsq-sds.org/article/view/1052/1238.

Baggs, Mel. Cussin’ and Discussin’, 10 Apr. 2020, cussinanddiscussin.wordpress.com/.

Genzlinger, Neil. “Mel Baggs, Blogger on Autism and Disability, Dies at 39.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/health/mel-baggs-dead.html.

Yergeau, Remi. “About.” M. Remi Yergeau, remiyergeau.com/.

Yergeau, Remi. “Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness.” Authoring Autism On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, Duke University Press, www.dukeupress.edu/authoring-autism.

Yergeau, Remi. “Introduction: Involution”. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, 2017.

Rachel Grace Chaos’ Take Home Final

Word Count: 1053

Rachel Grace Chaos

Doctor Chris Foss

ENGL 384: Section 01

December 9, 2021

Jordan Grunawalt’s Idea of Necropolitics and How it Relates to Mel Baggs’ Cultural Commentary on Autistic Experience  

            Jordan Grunawalt’s ideas in “The Villain Unmasked: COVID-19 and the Necropolitics of the Anti-Mask Movement” provide an insight into how conservative politics contain a necropolitical undercurrent in their rhetoric. Grunawalt discusses the emergence of the anti-mask movement in conservative spaces across the United States of America since the emergence of COVID-19. In their discussion, they examine the breadth of the anti-mask movement and how people view masking as a sign of “weakness” in an individual. Necropolitics, the use of social and political power to dictate how some people must die and others may live by disregarding disabled bodies as valuable, reinforces ableist notions and illustrates similar struggles Mel Baggs discusses autistic people face in an inaccessibly designed world in “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours”.

            Grunawalt defines “necropolitics” as “the ultimate expression of sovereignty where sovereignty is characterized as the power or capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” (Grunawalt), which ultimately designates some bodies “as lesser than, and inferior to others” (Grunawalt). A main idea in their discussion of necropolitics during COVID-19 is that “hospitals discriminated against people with disabilities more than any other singular factor” (Grunawalt), which oftentimes during peaks of COVID-19 cases left disabled people without a bed. The idea that some bodies are more important than others is a main discussion in disability studies as the discussion of personal freedoms often overlooks “vulnerable groups” who political powers do not see as a “necessary facet for protecting” (Grunawalt). Necropolitical ideas infiltrate all areas of political discourse and often alienate key minority groups.

            Within their discussion of necropolitics, Grunawalt discusses the harmful re-politicizing of minorities’ powerful phrases and how that affects said minorities. Re-politicizing phrases meant to bring awareness to minority political issues carries a necropolitical undercurrent in the rhetoric that is harmful to the underrepresented groups. Protesters at rallies dedicated to removing mask mandates demand a rationale that “masks make one look (or actually be) weaker and weakness is bad, so masks must be resisted” (Grunawalt), while they hold signs demanding: “’Sacrifice the weak: Reopen TN’” or the appropriated phrase “’My body, my choice’” (Grunawalt). The discussion around mask mandates focuses on the idea that “the ‘healthy’ bodies are rhetorically differentiated from the ‘sick’ bodies” (Grunawalt) and should not be subject to equal limitations. Furthermore, the demand to sacrifice “weak” bodies communicates that it is not the “healthy” people’s job to accommodate the vulnerable bodies, which harrowingly relates to discourses surrounding accommodations for other disabled bodies, specifically the autistic bodies Mel Baggs discusses.

            Baggs notes that although “there are so many injustices, large and small, that affect autistic people” it is “wheelchair accessibility” and language that “galls” [Baggs] the most “on an everyday basis” (Baggs) because no matter where they go, “the very structure of the environment” (Baggs) aims to exclude them. Ignoring the demands of autistic bodies in both physical and social environments illustrates a common thread throughout the discussions around disabled experiences. For Baggs, language is a common inaccessible facet in daily life as “language was built mostly by non-autistic people” (Baggs). For Baggs, they are met every day with “stereotypes about functioning levels” (Baggs) and the stereotypes communicate nothing but misleading experiences in their life. Focusing on the absence of abilities relating to both language and physicality results in contradicting views of autism. Baggs’ discussion of the inaccessibility of language patterns and physical environments communicates their conclusion that:

The richness I experience of the world is not merely a more limited version of other people’s experiences. My experiences have their own richness that other people may not be able to see, and they are far more than a mere lack of movement, conventional thought, speech, language, or perception. (Baggs)

It is impossible to determine one life as more enriching than another, as an individual’s perception of their own richness does not relate to other people’s experiences.

            It is in the anti-maskers’ discourse that “alleged masks impeded their civil liberties and violated their rights as ‘healthy’ bodies” (Grunawalt) that the idea of the ableist and inaccessible “structure of the environment” (Baggs) within the United States of America emerges. Powerful people ultimately determine how to build and structure everything in society, which leaves “wheelchair users… a particular and awful difficulty” when “the powerful people are not wheelchair users” (Baggs). In the same breath, a society structured around powerful people leaves COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths to “hit BIPOC (Black Indigenous, and People of Color) elderly, poor, and disabled lives the hardest” as “local and federal leaders [are] unwilling to take mask measures seriously, even at the cost of their constituents’ lives” (Grunawalt). Overall, the idea of necropolitics that Grunawalt discusses relates to all aspects of the disabled experience and how disabled bodies do not receive the same accessibility as non-disabled bodies in all environments, from politics and healthcare to specifically the environments that Baggs outlines from their own autistic experience.

            In examining Mel Baggs’ experience navigating the world with autism and Jordan Grunawalt’s discussion of the ableism in anti-mask discourse, the connection between necropolitical demands and ableist designed environments is apparent. Language and physical environments alienate autistic bodies. Anti-mask protests appropriate minority groups’ protest statements with signs that read “’Freedom to breathe’” and leave disabled bodies further alienated. In the greater environment, powerful and often non-disabled bodies structure environments that leave autistic bodies to struggle in adjusting to environments that refuse to accept that one body cannot represent all bodies. In the end, these factors prove that necropolitics, the use of social and political power to dictate how some people must die and that others may live by disregarding disabled bodies as valuable, reinforces ableist notions and illustrates the similar struggles Mel Baggs discusses autistic people face in a world designed to aid non-disabled bodies above all others.

I Pledge: Rachel Grace Chaos

Works Cited

Baggs, Amanda “Mel”. “Up in the Clouds and down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30.1 (2009). Print.

Grunawalt, Jordan. “The Villain Unmasked: Covid-19 and the Necropolitics of the Anti-mask Movement.” Disability Studies Quarterly 41.3 (2021). Print.