Overcoming obstacles Deej’s journey toward inclusion

(Deej answered questions about his autism in an open forum. Photo by Amanda Martin.)

On March 21, FSU hosted a talk and screening of “Deej,” a documentary about DJ Savarese, a high-spectrum autistic student struggling to make his way through college and live on his own.

English professor Lisa Eck said the event was one of the “most anticipated events this year.”

Sociology professor Holly Pearson met DJ and his family last June at a disabilities studies and education conference in Minneapolis. Inspired by his determination, Pearson invited DJ to present his life story at FSU. DJ also visited and spoke to Pearson’s Sociology of Disabilities class.

“I am absolutely thrilled that not only we are able to have Deej here, but also his family, which is very meaningful,” Pearson said.

At a young age, DJ was abandoned by his birth parents, unable to communicate and placed in foster care, where he was subjected to abuse from another foster care child because of his disability.

DJ said he now talks using multiple means of communication including a text-to-voice synthesizer, pen and paper and ASL. Currently, he is “testing his vocal chords.”

People assume autistic individuals don’t have emotions or “they can’t hear or think because they can’t speak,” he said, when in reality, this assumption is untrue and is the root cause of exclusion that many people suffering from disabilities experience on a daily basis.

Emily and Ralph Savarese adopted DJ when he was 6 and gradually strengthened DJ’s courage, teaching him to prosper.

In the film, before DJ heads off to college, his parents allow him to explore Washington, D.C. and Boston with his cousin Seth in an attempt to boost his confidence.

During a visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., DJ held his head high, wishing for the courage to speak and “free his people.”

DJ graduated from Oberlin College in May 2017 with a double major in anthropology and creative writing. Fighting all odds to get there, DJ constantly encountered self-doubt and adversity amongst peers who assumed he was incapable of the work ahead of him because of his lack of speech.

To “gain control” over his emotions, DJ turned to poetry.

“Poetry is my native language and I love the melody of words,” he said.

Rania Kelly, who works for a non-profit organization in Massachusetts that promotes inclusion and provides services for people who need support, said, “It’s impressive how beautiful his poetry is and how easy poetry is for him, but for me, it’s beyond my cognitive comprehension. So, it’s kind of mind boggling.”

When DJ asked the forum what FSU will do moving forward to help non-speaking individuals, Disability Access Services Coordinator Vikky Angelico said, right now, FSU only has one student who is non-speaking, so the University started out by introducing them to faculty and provided classwork ahead of time. However, this accommodation turned out to be unnecessary since “the student could do it himself” and in the same amount of time as anyone else.

She added, “What we do is probably consider the individual, that’s probably the most important thing. But we are always advocating and supporting the faculty to get more creative … and I think it’s worked out pretty well.”

“Being included is every kid’s right, it shouldn’t be a lottery,” he added. “It’s hard to know your people are segregated and no one seems to mind.”