Ableism on Display: The New York Times Review of Wretches and Jabberers

The March 31 issue of the New York Times includes a short review of the film Wretches and Jabberers, a documentary that details the work of two autistic men as they travel the world to change hearts and minds regarding autism, disability, and intelligence.

On, a website devoted to the film, the men’s mission is summed up in this way:

“Determined to put a new face on autism, Tracy Thresher, 42, and Larry Bissonnette, 52, travel to Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland.  At each stop, they dissect public attitudes about autism and issue a hopeful challenge to reconsider competency and the future.”

To read the review in the New York Times, however, you’d never know anything about what drives these two men to do their work.  In fact, you’d never know much about the two men at all.  The entire review skips over the thoughts and perspectives of autistic people altogether.  In fact, ironically enough, it is filled with the distorted perspectives on disability that Thresher and Bissonnette have set out to correct.

Whenever I read a piece about autistic people in the mainstream media, I start out prepared to cringe.  I knew I was getting into trouble when I read the opening paragraph of the review, which is especially cringe-worthy:

Those who work with or are related to people with disabilities can get considerable encouragement from “Wretches and Jabberers,” a documentary about two autistic men who learned only in adulthood how to use a keyboard to convey their thoughts and needs.

I’m really glad that our coworkers and families can feel encouraged by the film, but how about us?  After all, people with disabilities watch films, too.  In fact, considering that the film is about people with disabilities, one might argue that we would have a particular interest in the subject matter.  But we are absent from the audience of both the film and the review.

Oh, but wait.  Hope springs eternal.  Note the beginning of the next paragraph:

But the film also has a message for a different group:

Could it be us?  Have we arrived?  Alas, not a chance:

the technical wizards who develop communication devices. Gerardine Wurzburg, the director, is not shy about showing that even though her subjects now have a way to communicate, it is a painstaking process; perhaps this film will encourage engineers and software developers to keep the innovations coming.

I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t included in this “different group” (because, after all, we are different), but I began to think that there might be some empathy here for the difficulties involved in being autistic and needing to communicate in “painstaking” ways.  After all, I’m all for technological innovations that make the lives of disabled people easier.

But again, my hopes were dashed.  After all, just because I feel empathy for autistic people doesn’t mean that New York Times reviewers do.  (It’s a Theory of Mind thing.  I’ve learned that other people don’t feel my level of empathy.  Shocking, I know — both that I’ve figured it out and that other people lack a modicum of sensitivity.)

I began to realize that I’d been overly hopeful when I read the next paragraph:

The film follows the men, Tracy Thresher, 42, and Larry Bissonnette, 52, on a trip that takes them (and their two heroically patient aides, Harvey F. Lavoy and Pascal Cheng) to Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland, where they demonstrate their communication skills and meet other adults with autism who have been making similar strides.

Did this man say “heroically patient aides”?  Oh, God in heaven, will people stop it with how heroic people are for assisting disabled people?  Please?

I wouldn’t have minded “patient aides.”  After all, it does take patience to assist people who take a long time to communicate their thoughts and feelings.  But “heroic”?  What’s heroic about being patient with these two men?  I generally save “heroic” for choices that involve potential physical harm, like running into a blaze to rescue a child or staring down a tank in Tiananmen Square.  And, given that Thresher and Bissonnette are nonviolent people in control of themselves with a mission in life, I have to wonder exactly what merits the label of heroism — apart from the fact that disabled people are almost universally seen as burdens on their caregivers, that is.

Apparently, it’s the fact that the text-to-voice technology can’t speed things up enough for the reviewer:

It’s slow going as Mr. Thresher and Mr. Bissonnette tap tap tap out their thoughts a keystroke at a time, but maybe some day this film will strike us the way 20-year-old movies with mobile phones in them do now: “Wow, such primitive technology compared with what’s available these days.”

I’m absolutely appalled by the illogic and insensitivity here.  What technology in the world could possibly speed up the process for someone who needs to tap out his thoughts slowly?  Brain implants?  Telepathic circuits?  What?  The problem is not one of technology.  The problem is that the New York Times reviewer finds the communication too slow going and, instead of accommodating his mind to the fact that some people just need to communicate in this fashion, he indulges in a fantasy of improved technology that will bring everyone up to a speed he can tolerate.

Never mind the heroic patience it takes to tap out one’s thoughts, one painstaking keystroke at a time, and to live in a world in which one is chronically misunderstood and dismissed.

Never mind that the men are actually communicating their thoughts after having been written off for much of their lives.

Never mind the content of the communication itself.

Never mind that the whole point is to make others sensitive about what goes on inside disabled people, appearances notwithstanding.

Never mind all that, because it really isn’t about disabled people.  It’s about how we affect other people.  And that’s all it’s about.

The only sentence in the entire review that sounds even remotely sensitive is the following:

The film is maddeningly vague how the two men made their initial breakthroughs, but it certainly is proof that even those who are written off as children can find a voice.

Yes, even people written off as children can find a voice.  And it would be quite encouraging to all of us if people actually listened to what those voices are saying.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg blogs at Journeys with Autism.

Ableism on Display: The New York Times Review of Wretches and Jabberers appears here by permission.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s memoir is The Uncharted Path.

on 04/13/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | No Comments | Read More

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