For Non-verbal Autistics and Others with Disabilities, Frederick Douglass’ Fight for Equality Continues Today

Frederick Douglass - Social Reformer, Orator, Writer and Statesman

Frederick Douglass – Social Reformer, Orator, Writer and Statesman

Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement, was a well-known social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman. He was most known for his powerful, incisive antislavery speeches and writing. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens, becoming the “voice” of the Abolition Movement of the mid-19th Century.

Douglass’ fight still goes on today, as autistics and other non-verbal children and adults struggle to be heard, to be given the freedom and equality he fought so hard for. At just about every turn, non-verbal autistics are treated as less than human, denied the “unalienable rights” granted to every American in the US Constitution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

As in Douglass’ day, when slaves were believed to not have the intellectual capacity to be American citizens, many bureaucrats, educators, and community leaders, the people that make the policies that affect all our lives, believe that non-verbal autistics do not have the intelligence to progress beyond the ability to learn basic “life skills.” These disenfranchised individuals fight the good fight every day as they struggle to have their voices heard and their needs acknowledged, in their communities, in school, and in their everyday lives.

And, as in Douglass’ time, voices are emerging from the silence to fight the injustice and inequality autistics, and others with disabilities that limit their power to communicate, face on a daily basis.

John Smyth - Social Reformer, Orator, Writer and Future Statesman (if he has anything to say about it!

John Smyth – Social Reformer, Orator, Writer and Future Statesman (if he has anything to say about it!

One of those emerging voices is Indianapolis-area resident John Smyth, a non-verbal autistic who has learned to communicate through the use of Facilitated Communication / Supported Typing, and quite eloquently, at that.

As John puts it, “I received my voice in December of 2010.” Since then, he has been actively attempting to gain the rights he, and others like him, deserve and the freedom to choose how to attain them.

As part of this effort, John has written about his experiences, most notably about his struggle with one local School system to be accepted and treated as an individual with unique needs, and to have those needs addressed, as the needs of many others’ with disabilities have been for the last 30 years or more through Special Education programs mandated by the federal law.

John and his family have gone so far as to move from one Central Indiana community that refused to acknowledge those needs to one that was considerably more responsive to them, as is illustrated in the amazing writings he has produced since moving to the new school system.
One such article John wrote as a reflective essay assignment for school equated Frederick Douglass’ struggle to his own, as reflected in his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom.

“Once awakened by the silver trump of knowledge, my spirit was roused to eternal wakefulness. Liberty! The inestimable birthright of every man, had, for me, converted every object into an asserter of this great right.”

John had been neglected by his old school for so long, as had so many other children with autism, that he was understandably sad and angry.

As John put it, “I felt toward them much like Frederick Douglass felt toward his slave mistress. ‘She aimed to keep me ignorant; and I resolved to know, although knowledge only increased my discontent. My feelings… they sprung from the consideration of my being a slave at all… I had been cheated’ My thought [at the time was], ‘What is it going to take to get them to understand that each day I walk in that lifeskills class, a part of me dies? I am humiliated and angry, to the point where I have given up…’ ”

The frustration John felt is almost impossible for those of us who have never dealt with that kind of oppression to understand.

Quoting from My Bondage and My Freedom, John found the similarities of his fight to Douglass’ struggle for emancipation strikingly familiar:

“… every increase of knowledge… added something to the almost intolerable burden of the thought- ‘I am a slave for life.’ To my bondage, I saw no end. I have often wished myself a beast…- anything, rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy, beyond my ability to describe.”

To which, John stated, “Then I remembered my mission of being a warrior for many after me, as Douglass recalled his commitment to be free, and an advocate for his enslaved brethren.”

To learn more about his struggle to get the education he needed, wanted, and deserved, read John Smyth’s entire heartfelt and insightful essay, From Autism’s Tomb: Quiet Assumptions That Kill, on his website (links open in new windows)