David James "DJ" Savarese is a poet, prose writer, and recent alumni of Oberlin College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in Anthropology and Creative Writing. He is also autistic and nonspeaking.
DJ shares his story through the new documentary Deej, which just received a Peabody Award and will be shown at the Julien Dubuque International Film festival on Saturday, April 28th. The documentary, which was produced by Savarese in partnership with Robert Rooy, follows him through high school and into college as he confronts society's obstacles to inclusion and chases his dream of a college education.
On this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Ralph Savarese, father of DJ Savarese and Professor and Chair in the Department of English at Grinnell College, about their experience filming for the documentary. Kris Steinmetz, Executive Director of the Autism Society of Iowa, also joins the conversation.
Savarese and his wife adopted DJ in Florida after he was abandoned by his birth parents. They had been working with his mother to help with her drug and alcohol addiction and had grown close to DJ in the process.
"Beyond anything intellectual it was this sense that here was this kid who was bonded to us and we were bonded to him," Savarese says. "We didn't know that this story would result in him winning a Peabody Award or graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin. What we knew was he deserved a decent life."
With the documentary, DJ hopes to advocate for other nonspeaking people with autism and stress the point that inclusion should not be a lottery.
"The desire to do the film was DJ's. He really wanted people to see what was possible, what the challenges were but also how those challenges can be negotiated and circumvented," Savarese says.