“Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace is a usually-speaking Autistic activist and Assistant Professor of Education at National Louis University in Chicago, where she lives in the suburbs with her family. She blogs at tinygracenotes.blogspot.com and is an editor on i.e.: inquiry in education (digitalcommons.nl.edu/ie/) and NeuroQueer (neuroqueer.blogspot.com). Her writing can also be found among other places in the books Loud Hands, Both Sides of the Table: Autoethnographies of Educators Learning and Teaching With/In [Dis]ability, and Criptiques. Ibby currently serves on the board of directors of Society for Disability Studies.”
Recently, along with Amy Sequenzia, she edited the book Typed Words, Loud Voices, which is a compilation of pieces written by non-speaking autistics.
Today’s piece was originally published in Ibby’s blog, Tiny Grace Notes.
A Person Is Not A Function
Elizabeth (Ibby) Grace
I haven’t seen my friend Eric in years, and we are not in touch right now because our friendship, our communion, is about hanging out together. He’s not much of a talker at all, maybe ten words? and not a writer. (And even if he were a talker, I am heinous on the phone.) Next time I am in his town, and we see each other, it will still be easy to hang out with each other as if we just left off, because we both love to sit in our sea cliff hangout hidden by sea grass and watch the ocean. We like to do this quietly.
Eric is on the ball and understands what people are saying and doing. I and some others find this obvious, but not everybody does. For one thing, he knows your name if he likes you, and if he doesn’t, he will seem never to have met you, over and over. If you are a loud face-talker who says things like Look At My Eyes, he will never openly know your name. If you touch him without his permission, which a shocking number of people feel free to do, he won’t even look at your mouth out of the corner of his eyes ever again. Your name is mud to him, but if someone he likes asks whether you, the toucher-without-permission, are a complete jackwagon, he will very slightly smirk instead of raging, and it is really, really funny and awesome how quickly he can contain himself.
If he likes you, he will know your name, and say it, even after years. He says it like you are a really amazing thing, since it is one of the few things he feels like saying. He can tell who you are by that quick glance at your mouth out of the corner of his eye. He will also say yes or no, if he feels like it, but he’d rather say yes he wants to go to the beach by action, or invite you by getting going but leading with his head and stopping after a couple steps to make sure you get the hint of what is happening. I know this because after two years of not seeing him I ran into him in the grocery store where he called my name before I saw him and we both dropped whatever our other plans were at his silent but clear and familiar suggestion and went to our spot in the bluffs.
When we are together there is no yimmer yammer. It is relaxing. I know I can go to him to get centered and real. Eric knows I am also not going to stop him in the middle of whatever he is doing because my agenda is more important or something, and then he will have to stop right there, walk backwards, and start all over again. This is the kind of thing people do whose names he does not decide to say. They do it a lot. Many people act like they don’t think he understands anything, which seems odd to me. But now that I am online I see that a preponderance of people seem to believe that if you don’t talk, you can’t listen. Not the truth, but widely held.
I don’t know how much Eric would or could talk if he thought talking were a worthwhile pastime, because that would be me yakking asking him a ton of stuff, which he would obviously find annoying and noisy. He maybe doesn’t have it to self-advocate all the time in the large ways, like a job, but I know he has done it some, or made some of what is important to him known. Where he lives, for example, there really isn’t a good job situation for people with disabilities, or even for people without, because, I’ll just say it, he lives in California. We have all heard about California’s financial woes. Last I knew, he spent his days in this thing called a “day center” which is really kind of silly. But he does whatever they do there, comes home, goes to the beach. The group home where he lives has some people in it that are on the noisier side, not his favorite, but he lives within walking distance of the ocean in a place where the property values are really pretty out of control and it’s a surprise that they even have group homes there.
If I still lived where Eric lives I could easily help figure out what kinds of jobs he would be good at and enjoy, not for hours and hours, because working too much would probably stress him out. Plus the whole people in his face making noise thing, and interrupting his processes: added stress. And if he wanted to, Eric could easily steal from me, or fake me out, or confuse me emotionally because I trust him so much, but I know he is not that kind of person, and I know for certain my trust is not misplaced. The reason I know all of these things and more is because we are friends and he can communicate by being himself instead of just by talking or writing. And I can listen by being with him and noticing who he is instead of by saying use your words and look in my eyes and press the picture pecs or whatever, and so can everyone else, but they just don’t know how important that is, yet, probably because they can’t relate to him or something. I don’t know. But this “high” and “low” Functioning talk that keeps happening all over the place over and over again which is supposed to separate us somehow is hurting my eyes and ears and feelings and so I have to write this.
Let me just put this out there: my world would be a whole lot quieter if I could get away with it. But it isn’t, and I can’t, because I will yimmer yammer til the cows come home as long as it isn’t Eric’s path to tell you that Eric is a person whose life is worth living. It’s his friends’ path, and he has other friends, and I am the one talking and writing now, because I can, which does NOT make me better than him or more of a person. It just gives me a slightly greater hope of being heard: Eric’s life is worth living. And not only for Eric, but for a lot of other people, such as his friends, and people in the neighborhood who like seeing him go by.
A person is not a function. A person is a person.
Thank you for listening.