(Mel Baggs, sie, sier, hir, they, them)
In 2006 I was searching for a new way of thinking about disability. At the time, I didn’t know much about disability studies, rights, and justice. I grew up knowing disability had to be fixed or cured, and there had to be a subset of normal and abnormal, and disability meant dependency. Then I found the Autism Hub and someone on it named Mel Baggs, a person who was autistic with many other facets of disability
From there on, the whole rhetoric I knew about growing up suddenly became dimmer and dimmer as I learned more and more deeper and deeper into disability studies. I eventually earned my Master’s degree in disability studies. And all this came, in large part, to Mel’s contributions on Autism Hub.
At first, I didn’t get Mel’s contributions. I liked Mel’s work, but I didn’t get it. Sometimes the light bulb takes a while to go on and sometimes it takes deaths for that to happen. In this case, it took Mel’s life in order to fully get it. Let’s take a look into how it did by glimpsing into the work of Mx. Mel Baggs. Here’s what I have taken away from hir work:
When we are born, we are born with a brain, a mouth, a nose, ears, eyes, the ability to touch, and use our sensory system however we can use it. This system includes the brain and after watching Mel’s video on YouTube in 2007, my eyes opened up to remind me of this because I have always had a mouth I can use, eyes to see, ears to hear, a brain to process, and my body to feel. Not everyone has all of these facets at once. In essence, I am a human being and I can breathe. My realization of Mel's contributions to my own life was when I watched her YouTube videos showing who she is and what she can and cannot do.
My life has always been rooted in fear, fear of the unknown, fear of speaking up, and fear in what will be if I get too comfortable or too risky. Take for instance, my own bar mitzvah, I had a hard time speaking up to enjoy a party my parents’ made for me with a theme I wanted - “horror movies”. It seemed liked I took it all for granted, and by golly, it seemed like that on the outside, but I never really got over that fear back then, and it slowly passes my life. The fear that disrupts my life to this very day from every job I ever had to a simple friendship and communication to even communication with my own family. It makes me quiver knowing I have never really communicated so well as Mel had or many others throughout my life. It reminds me that during these times of quarantining and living with my parents, my family and I had a Zoom family gatherings and I still struggle with that fear.
I have never been not fearful and but the fear subsided, a little, and I was able to put the fear behind me the more and more I read Mel’s work. Mel’s work left me in awe. To see such communications from an Autistic person who lived their life with a lot more disability than me, an Autistic person whose has an impairment rooted in fear of speaking up. And it’s not that I was not taught to speak up, but I was taught without understanding my fears. Mel’s work showed another way. I still have struggles with my fears, but understanding my fears brought me to a time in a couple of years before starting graduate school empowered me to speak up when I took my own initiative to transition my career. I spoke up to my boss basically yelling at the doctor’s office I was working at, to say how I really felt. A year later, I applied for graduate school. This was my first step of many more steps to come in my journey of speaking up. Many of the people closest to me still don’t see me as a person even as I speak up. This can be frustrating, but I am resilient and always have been. My tenacity keeps me going and Mel’s contributions continue to help me as they are archived on the internet.
I know I’m not the only one influenced by hir work, which seems to be a catalyst and reminder that one can speak up, that we each have the power, and no one should be afraid. Mel would sometimes only type, “I have the Power”, bringing to mind He-Man and the Masters of the Universe as well which was a favorite of mine.
Mel also wrote powerfully about self-advocacy, particularly in hir piece, the Meaning of Self-Advocacy, found on autistics.org. As Mel taught us, “Self-Advocacy does not always look good on paper”. I learned that self-advocacy is not just about speaking up, it is following through as a person. Mel seemed to really understood how to make community, a community unified with everyone and be with the relationships who care. I learned through Mel’s writings and videos that the people involved in advocacy must act and be a team of communication. Sometimes you must be blunt, sometimes you must be told your acting out, and sometimes you must tell your feelings so the other person knows how you feel.
But there’s something that Mel “got” that meant so much to me. Sie pointed out in a 2016 blog post, “you can’t address your own oppression adequately without addressing ableism, no matter what your oppression is, whether you’re also disabled or not”. Hir writing cut to the chase and simply put out there the truth that needed to be told.
Mel Baggs showed a passion for agency and communication across everyone’s relationships. Without any type of communication, we really have no relationship and communication is not just talking. Another blog post Mel wrote that really delved further into this concept and sharpened my advocacy was in hir article “Aspie Supremacy Can Kill” when they wrote “On average the further from the norm you are, the more it is literally a matter of life and death that your value be seen as equal with the people with the most power” (Baggs March 2010. Humanity is one thing that really means being with one each other with the flexibility to love and respect.
Finally, I always learned about Mel from hir work was no one can take the power away from us unless we give it to them, and if we don’t give it to them, then we have our own power. However, power does not mean disrespecting our family, friends, and people we vote into power in governments and other authority positions, it just means ownership in the responsibility of our self.
Thank you, Mel, for a wonderful life of teaching your peers and beyond about speaking up and I appreciate every part of your work you accomplished to show all of us we should not get too comfortable and afraid. There really is a way to speak up to live our own life with what we want. I end it with this from Mel Baggs blog post from 2016, “You get the idea: We don’t all agree . You don’t have to agree with all of us. You can’t possibly agree with all of us anyway” (Baggs May 2016).