Saturday, April 28, 2007

Amanda Baggs: The Many Shapes of Personhood

Amanda Baggs holds little back when it comes to talking about the lives of people with cognitive disabilities.

Amanda is diagnosed as a low functioning person with autism. Despite that label, she learned English, which she describes as her second language. She is using it to tell us about her, her life, her fight for personhood, dignity and justice, not just for herself but for all people who have cognitive disabilities and those who have been dehumanized.

In her* video and website ( she is spot on, tough and upsetting. Upsetting because I am guilty of her indictment that people do not believe there is a language of autism and as a society we care little to change that.

Baggs says: “I find it very interesting by the way, that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit, but failure to learn my language is seen as natural that people like me are officially as mysterious and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves who are confused not autistic people or other cognitively disabled people who are inherently confusing.”

She explains that her language is a physical conversation with all parts of her environment. In the first four minutes of her eight-minute video, she teaches us what that looks and sounds like. Her body rocks and her hands flap, both movements that society and the medical community use to document her lack of consciousness.

Looking at her, I remember others who look like Amanda. My teachers told me that people with autism are totally unaware of their surroundings, that their movements had no purpose, that people who were that cognitively disabled could not learn one language, let alone two. The idea that there was a validity and purpose was unthinkable. Many years ago I asked a young mother of a child with autism to explain it to me. She described it as a veil that surrounded her child and little or nothing could penetrate the veil. Now I learn just the opposite is true.

Amanda is using her video to educate. Just because she lives in a world and uses a language very different from mine, she and others like Amanda, must have the same rights and dignity any human would expect. They also have the right to make their own choices, choose where to live, and with whom, and all the choices most of us take for granted. She teaches us about the degrading and shameful living options for people with autism. She speaks of the abuse and the death threats she endured.

“…in a world in which those determine whether you have any rights, there are people being tortured, people dying because they are considered non persons, because their kind of thought is so unusual to be considered thought at all. Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.”
~ Amanda Baggs

*To view Amanda Baggs Video and read the 700+ responses to it, visit and type in her name.

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