Listen 2 Us - Literacy, Self-Determination, and Interdependence for Nonspeakers

Past Insider Perspectives


My Literacy Journey by DJ Savarese

January, 2018

I. Your website chronicles your literacy path from kindergarten through college graduation. By 5th or 6th grade, you have caught up with your peers and only require a labeler or computer as a motor support to replace handwriting. Are you saying if nonspeakers don’t do these steps, they can’t be literate?

  • No, I’m saying these steps will help authentic me to become heard.

Do you think this journey can work for some other nonspeaking people?

  • Yes.

Are you saying all nonspeaking learners who follow this approach need to catch up to their peers by sixth grade or else go to special education curricula?

  • No, I’m not saying that. I think we all learn in our own way and at our own pace. I am saying that I learned this way, and it’s likely others can as well.

II. You grew up (in early elementary) before computers and tablets (iPads) were commonplace,  so you actually physically placed words into blanks on the page. Is there a difference or would using an iPad have worked just as well?

  • I think there is a difference. I needed the physical touch of the words to feel like I was in the world (and not in the vibrant imaginary world inside my head). Only later could I use an iPad or computer to do my work.

Do you have a sense of when you no longer needed to touch the words?

  • I’m not really sure, but I’ll be safe if I say it was after I learned to do the exact same work as my classmates.

So what did you use to “touch” the words when you began to create whole sentences and paragraphs on your own?

  • I used a Brother labeler and put my sticker-backed ideas on the page like a human printer.

Are there labelers still being made?

  • Yes, I got mine at Staples.

Anything else?

  • Yes, in my elementary years I loved the labeler because it allowed me to take a break and get up to throw out the leftover paper backings. I liked the anticipation of doing that myself.

So being able to get up and throw out the backings gave you predictable, familiar movement breaks?

  • Yes, I loved the idea that I could throw them out myself.

III. So you say this path to literacy allowed you to show your authentic self. Are you saying the words of others who learn to read and write without classroom instruction are inauthentic?

  • No, I’m not saying nonspeakers who teach themselves to read and write are inauthentic, but I am saying it’s best for them to learn in school with their friends or at least no one should be denied that opportunity. I know what it feels like to be segregated in classrooms of easy lessons. I went to a segregated school for kids with disabilities in pre-k through kindergarten (my first time around). Everyone deserves the choice to learn and get to be at their neighborhood school. It’s NOT fair to say “you’re not able to learn here” when it’s really a matter of not knowing how to teach us. I’m very glad I was at regular school all those years because I saw a lot of ideas about how to learn even while I was not yet able to do it myself. And I was able to practice and work on managing myself out and about in the real world. I also think my ideas are more hopeful and varied and able to grow because I was able to hear ideas other than my own and my teacher’s.

There’s a lot of discussion these days about the “Hidden Curriculum.” By that people mean “the unwritten assumptions and messages people learn from their coursework and from being at school.” In your reflections at the end of the work sample descriptions, you get at what some of these “invisible” lessons were. Can you share anything you think your peers/friends learned from the Hidden Curriculum?

  • I love this idea. I think they learned a lot, like it’s ok to be a little different and it’s ok to say things differently, and I think they got to feel a lot of encouragement from my presence there and to know they were safe and ok. It’s not necessarily A LOT of ideas, but I think it’s core ideas that create hope and well-being for all students. I love staying positive, and I learned to be hopeful by being with my classmates and friends.

You mention you weren’t as fond of story writing as you were of poetry and essay writing. Do you know why?

  • Yes, in part, it’s personal preference, but in part it’s that I like being able to change an idea or thought and not just instill the status quo.

Can you say more? Are you suggesting that story writing instills the status quo and poetry and essay writing don’t?

  • I think fiction—narrative structure— is not fresh-thinking, and I think poetry and essay writing can be.

So what makes poetry and/or essay writing fresh-thinking?

  • Poetry and lyric essay writing don’t pit us against the outside world or ourselves. I love saying I’m a poet and not stuck in this pattern of thinking. I love being able to share my ideas freely, not confined by the structure of narrative.

I see that you’ve published in a fair number of literary journals already. Can people access these writings?