A Night Out

Last night I attended a reception for Special Olympics at The New York Historical Society, where I spotted my former Governor, James E. McGreevey and his partner Mark O'Donnell; unfortunately the evening's program began just as I was about to regale them with stories of bike rides with Charlie westward from central Union County right to the edge of Plainfield's Sleepy Hollow neighborhood, where these gentlemen now make their home. I missed that opportunity but I do hope (in light of recent discourse on this blog on sexual-identity politics) to share in a subsequent post a few observations about Jim McGreevey's striking memoir, The Confession, which now joins a distinguished genre of Jersey Irish-Catholic spiritual autobiography.

It was an inspiration to see Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the Historical Society; her appearance can only be described as radiant. If you're an advocate for persons with intellectual disabilities you will surely concur with the judgment of Sargent Shriver's biographer, Scott Stossel: "To the extent that the shame of retardation has now been lifted, this is to an astonishing degree the result of the work of one woman and the camps she started at Timberlawn n the spring of 1962," when Ms. Shriver turned the grounds of her family's Maryland home into a center of athletic competition that later grew into Special Olympics. Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, Inc., reminded the gathering last evening that his mother's goal was not to be "nice" to people with intellectual disabilities but to empower us all to change the world. She truly is indeed, as Tim concluded, a revolutionary.

Tim Shriver pursued a similar theme in his keynote address at a conference on Autism and Advocacy at
FordhamUniversity's
LincolnCenter campus Friday, October 27 (which I organized in my capacity as co-director--with Mark Massa, S.J., of Fordham's Curran Center for American Catholic Studies). The conference featured a memorable presentation by autistic self-advocate Kassiane Alexandra Sibley. "I'm not broke and don't need fixin, '" Ms. Sibley proclaimed. Kassiane had just finished asking how many among the audience (of over 200) considered themselves "broken." A fairly healthy smattering of hands were raised. The speaker noted that none of the hands belonged to the very small cohort of audience members that a moment earlier had identified themselves (by another show of hands) as autistic persons. "I guess none of us are broken," the speaker concluded.

It was a stunning moment amid an electrifying performance by Ms. Sibley, a Montanan in her early 20s best known for a blog that is feisty even by the superheated conventions of the autism wars. Kassiane knew this was a different kind of autism conference than the ones at which she had previously spoken: held at a Jesuit university before an predominantly "neurotypical" gathering of parents, advocates, teachers and college students. She also clearly knew something of her audience's theological predilections. For many Christians a self-identity as "broken" persons opens a path to solidarity through Christ with the suffering, the dispossessed, the marginalized. Then why not with the autistic? After all, every time I've attended a special disability Mass with my nine-year-old autistic son Charlie, the homilist has promised that we broken selves are most beloved of God. Not so fast, warned Kassiane Alexandra Sibley, in suggesting that even the most compassionately-applied labels originating from the most well-meaning of sources constrict the varieties of human experience by assigning autistic persons a role they may be loathe to fulfill. It covers some wide spectrum, this autismland, and from where Kassiane was standing--in a law school amphitheatre on Manhattan's West Side--looking out over a very fine group most of which had never heard from her like before, it was time for witness against the claim that has launched a thousand fund-raising drives: autism is always a "devastating disorder" that must be eradicated in our lifetimes. "Cure?" Kassiane intoned in her hauntingly musical voice. "We don't need no stinkin' cure."

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