Deej, a Peabody Award-winning and Emmy-nominated feature-length documentary, offers fresh perspectives on autism, inclusion, disability, and neurological diversity. A collaboration between Director Rob Rooy and Writer/Producer David James Savarese, the film has aired on PBS and at festivals across the country, where it has garnered numerous awards.
Savarese—also known as DJ or Deej—is the primary subject of the documentary. While the film is about his experience and education as the first non-speaking graduate of Oberlin College, DJ expresses ambivalence about this role. His mission is a collective one, to “free my people”—in other words, to create a world of full inclusion for autistic people. In his words, “Inclusion should not be a lottery.”
Savarese is acutely aware that he won the inclusion lottery. Abandoned by his birth mother at age 3, he was adopted by loving parents committed to his thriving. Many non-speaking autistic children, dismissed as unintelligent or simply too difficult to live with, are institutionalized—or simply don’t have access to the care and education that makes a life like Savarese’s possible. Deej offers a concrete portrait of one young man’s experience with inclusion—and, importantly, makes it clear that we are a long way from Savarese’s dream of full inclusion: “I have a lot of work to do. Neurotypical people have work to do too. Hope lives on, messy, imperfect.”
Savarese is a poet—he’s the author of A Doorknob for the Eye—and he talks like one. His conversations—enabled by assistive technology that speaks what he types—are threaded with poetic phrases he’s coined. The film trains viewers to learn his poetic language. “Molding free” means remaking the world so that people with disabilities experience full inclusion. “Dear self” is a person acting with kindness. “Reasonable self” is the part of DJ who fully understands neurotypical norms even when sensory or emotional overload spurs him to break them. “Easy breathing” means feeling good, free from anxiety. “Fresh thinking” means overcoming prejudice and stigma that surrounds so-called disability, envisioning a world free from their misperceptions. For example, DJ recognizes Oberlin, with its “golden campus,” as a fresh-thinking institution, where inclusion is a continuous aim.
Throughout the film, Rooy portrays DJ’s family, friends, peers, and teachers adapting to his way of being. They learn his language. They familiarize themselves with his assistive technologies. They learn to interpret his body language and vocalizations. Much of this adapting is easy enough. It’s not hard to learn the meaning of “molding free”—or to enjoy the poetry of the phrase. But it would be just as easy to dismiss DJ’s poetic language as “incorrect” or ungrammatical. It’s not hard to understand that speech and intelligence are two different things. But it requires fresh thinking to overcome prejudices that have led people to equate them.