OPINION: Tony Hughes’ story in Netflix’s ‘Dahmer’ illustrates a tragic lack of connectivity for neurodivergents

Michael Friant, Contributing Writer

As humans, we are wired for connectivity whether we are able bodied or neurodivergent. In fact, our societal construct is built on the assumption that we would be able to form connections with other people. However, people who are neurodivergent often discover that finding connectivity is almost impossible due to the ingrained ableism within our society. As a result, we tend to accept human connections wherever we can find them, and this unfortunately sets us up to be taken advantage of physically, mentally, emotionally or even psychologically. A perfect, yet tragic, example of this is the depiction of Tony Hughes’ encounter with Jeffery Dahmer in the popular Netflix series, “Dahmer.”

In the opening scenes of the sixth episode “Silenced,” we see Hughes in a night club, approaching guys whom he thought were attractive. One by one, however, they turned him down once they discovered he was deaf. This tragically sets Hughes up to his meeting with Dahmer and the unfolding of the story from there. While this undoubtedly deals with homosexuality and could be easily dismissed by some, since we are in a state which often has anti LGBT views, I want to proceed by writing about some of the aspects that could apply to any disabled person regardless of their sexuality.

Prior to the bar scene, we see Hughes moving from his family’s house shortly before, signifying that he wants to have some separation and create his own life. As college students we all understand that desire, and it’s one that’s perfectly understandable since Tony is in his twenties. The tragic aspect is that he did not have a close peer support group in place to bounce ideas off of, let them know where he was going or have them meet potential partners. This undoubtedly stemmed from the ableism he faced as a deaf young man. People did not want to interpret for him, learn sign language or just write things out for him. We even see this happen when he is at the bar as the cis LGBT guys turn their backs on him when they found out that they would need to use a pad and pen to communicate. As a result, Dahmer preyed upon Hughes’ vulnerability and desire for connectivity to lure him into his grasp, which ultimately led to Hughes’ brutal murder.

Undoubtedly, those who have watched the show might be thinking to themselves, “Hughes had friends. You see them sharing a meal together. In fact, one of them even encouraged Hughes to talk to Dahmer.” While your observations are correct, here is why they were not as close as one might think at first glance. Hughes’ bar friends were more like reliable acquaintances whom he could go out with and have a good time. Later in the episode, we see Hughes and Dahmer playing a game in his apartment. During his explanation of the rules, Dahmer says if their pieces got too close together Hughes’ piece would disappear into the vortex. Tony was definitely perplexed by this in the moment.

However, from the rest of the episode, it is safe to assume that Hughes never mentioned that experience to those friends, even though several days elapsed before he returned to Dahmer’s apartment. In fact, the friends did not even mention that Dahmer was a possible suspect in the disappearance of Hughes to his mother or the police.

Unlike today, the internet wasn’t accessible during the 1980s. As a person with a disability, the internet has been naturally beneficial for me in connecting with other people. However, in this day and age where hiding behind a keyboard and fake profiles are both possibilities, I do not use the internet to connect with strangers who’s identity I am unable to verify. Even if I were to match with someone online, I currently do not have the necessary support system in place, such as close friends in whom I am able to confide in about my potential whereabouts. This is crucial for safety reasons.

For those thinking, “Well you could always get on the phone with them and verify them that way,” I have a speech impediment, which hinders me from being able to use the phone. Plus, as with any of my relationships, it is a process of getting individuals to see me as an equal due to the ingrained ableism. As a result, asking everyone I meet online to video chat right away and be okay with the silence is unrealistic. It is not their fault they were born and raised in an ableist society.

Furthermore, going out myself is not the answer either due to the potential of ending up in a situation like Hughes’ or some other dangerous environment. Since my speech is impaired, would outside parties or the police be willing to give me the time to share my story if I ended up in a situation where I needed help? More importantly, would they actually take me seriously? Those who think they would are likely not educated enough on how much ableism is ingrained into our society. Those who know me know how picky I am when deciding who to go out with or even ride with, outside of Uber and Lyft. This is because not everyone is willing to give me the time to express myself as an intelligent human being who is able to make decisions. Regarding the police, some periodic training about people with disabilities is not enough to magically fix ingrained perceptions about people with disabilities, and thus places us in danger of being hurt by those whom we seek safety from.

Recently, I had a very good friend suggest that I go to events in order to try to make friends, and then ask random people for rides as I am not able to drive. His reasoning was that people are more than willing to help people like me who are disabled. Arguably though, a disability puts a target on one’s backs as well. Setting aside the ride aspect, I would first have to get the individual to actually stay around long enough to let me ask the question after making small talk. If this step was somehow successful and I got a ride, I once again do not have the support network in place for people to notice if I happened to go missing. I would imagine me not showing up to class would set some alarm bells off for people who know how punctual I am about attending, but that could be a day or more after, depending on when the actual event took place.

I know the situations that I discussed are hypothetical, but this is how we, as disabled people, have to think in order to not to end up in a situation like Hughes. To a certain extent, of course, we all have to consider these hypotheticals, whether we are neurodivergent or not. However, when the crucial social construct of connectivity is broken, these hypotheticals are the first line of defense for people with disabilities. It is overwhelmingly exhausting, lonely and depressing at times.

While this is a much larger conversation that needs to be had to create real change in our society, there are certain actions that we as a campus community can do to help marginalized people, like the disability community, feel connected. If your space on campus is inhabited by someone with a disability, please truly embrace and accept that person. Don’t think to yourself that the person could be involved with clubs and thus feels accepted. Speaking from experience, we can be involved with campus life all we want and still not develop meaningful connections.

There are many people that I know through going to events with whom I personally don’t have meaningful relationships with and would not trust at all, other than with surface topics. In the same breath, there are people that I have more of a meaningful connection with because we built that foundation outside of campus activities, and we have continued to grow together as friends. However, those relationships are not close enough to enable me to be able to do what I previously stated. Again, in every relationship I have, there is ingrained ableism that needs to be addressed in a constructive manner, which unfortunately takes time.

Another way that the university could underscore this is to require every student to take a class about disabilities, just like they require people to take classes about science, math and other subjects. This is not too different than from how our neurotypical peers form relationships, though they would just be learning how to interact with disabled people at the college level rather than earlier in life. At the end of the day, we, the neurodivergent community, need that connectivity in order to thrive and experience things just like everyone else.