By Allen Brewer
For DJ Savarese, getting an education is a right that all children should have regardless of any disability. Savarese is the main focus of the new documentary Deej that follows Savarese's journey through high school and spotlights the problems autistics live with.
Savarese was born a nonspeaking autistic and was taken into foster care at young age. His life changed when he was adopted by the Savarese family. He began with sign language and eventually learned to communicate with a text-to-voice synthesizer. Through his hard work and perseverance, Savarese graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College in 2017 with degrees in anthropology and creative writing. He now travels the country as an advocate for nonspeaking autistics presenting at conferences.
“I won the lottery when my parents adopted me from foster care; I won it again when they included me in regular education,” Savarese said. “Now, I seek to help kids much less fortunate than I by showing people what a nonspeaking student with autism can do.”
The documentary is co-directed by a veteran film director, Robert Rooy, and Savarese himself. A unique insider’s view of living with autism and the struggles that come with it, Deej covers Savarese’s journey from high school to college and offers a glimpse into his past struggles and future goals. (The documentary also features Savarese’s poetry set to animation.) Its main point — Inclusion should not be a lottery.
According to the Oskaloosa Daily Herald, Rooy first heard about DJ while listening to Ralph Savarese, DJ’s adopted father, on National Public Radio talking about the book he wrote about his son’s early life, Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption (Other Press, 2007). Rooy became interested and meet with the family in Grinnell, Iowa, to inquire about a film opportunity.
Rooy recalls his first meeting with DJ and what he came to learn about him:
“When I first met DJ, I saw an attractive, earnest teenager who had been given a second chance at life through the love and encouragement of extraordinary parents. But it didn’t take me long to understand that there was much more to this young man. His views on life were more sophisticated and perceptive than those of many adults, and his fresh, poetic ways of describing them outshone those of almost anyone else I’d met. I was also impressed by the fierce conviction that DJ brought to everything he undertook. He burned with an inner fire to 'break barriers' for others like him. While he had come so far from a tormented past, what was striking was how far he wanted to go.”
Savarese and Rooy have traveled the country attending special screenings of the documentary at schools, organizations, and disability foundations. Earlier this fall, they traveled to the Superfest International Disability Film Festival in San Francisco, California. The documentary also premiered on PBS World this fall on the series America Reformed. The DVD is available for purchase at deejmovie.com.
Allen Brewer is a junior at the University of Mississippi majoring in journalism. The University of Mississippi is home to the Beta of Mississippi Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.