Represented

My week has just been dramatically improved by the newest Ted Talk.

On the TedSydney stage stood a young woman in leather, clutching her cellphone, facing an audience of hundreds.  This woman, Megan Washington, slowly but surely drove through her speech.

I have a problem.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, I’m fine, I’m not on fire.  I know that other people in the world have far worse things to deal with but for me…I have a stutter.

Speech impediments.  She covers it all.  How speech impediments are expected to be “grown out of,” never associated with a capable adult.  How the embarrassment and fear of tripping over a word forces us to develop avoidance tactics for problematic sounds.  I’ve experienced a different kind of impediment, where I struggle producing R and words that just have Rs in them.  Rhotacism doesn’t interrupt fluency as noticeably as stuttering does, but it sort of sucks sounding like Elmer Fudd half the time.  I constantly avoided words with R, often reading ahead during English classes to ensure the absence of problematic words before volunteering to read aloud.  And, like Megan, I’ve also noticed my impediment disappear when I sang, but my voice is not nearly as sweet as hers.  Instead, I’ve turned to writing where I can always be as clear and coherent as I want to be without the awkward fumble of lips and tongue.

Unlike Megan, I’ve received almost no therapy for this quirk, largely because my parents thought that acknowledging the existence of my speech impediment would ruin my representation, as if it was a disability.  Because of this line of thinking, I carried a lot of shame for my rhotacism, and soon found that a quiet disposition best cloaked my failure.  In recent years, I’ve finally managed to semi-nail the R–somehow producing a sound that is far enough from W to pass as a weird-sounding “R” that can slip through conversation gratefully unnoticed.  Despite this improvement, the fear of speaking continues to haunt me.  It is simply what I have learned.

But, thanks to the untalkative nature that developed as a result of my impediment, I became a very good listener.  And so, after spending a majority of my life carefully absorbing the words and conversations around me, I realized with a jolt that–

Perfect speech is not the norm!  Half of my peers at school would have some sort of speaking quirk–not necessarily a true impediment, but they would have that vowel or sound that sounded abnormal.  For the most part it would pass unnoticed by all. By all except me.  I was hungry and vigilant for this evidence–evidence that impediments aren’t uncommon and weird at all.  Down the hallway was the jock, popular despite his stutter.  Across the classroom a girl happily chatted away despite her slight lisp, because it didn’t matter.  It didn’t matter.

Oh, I wish that I learned this earlier–no, I wish that I was taught this earlier.  Would I have developed into a better person without carrying an unnecessary shame for my impediment? It’s up to debate, but I think I would have.  I think I would be less afraid to talk.  Less afraid to give reports in school.  Less afraid to stand up for others and myself.   Less afraid to meet others.  The self-esteem boost alone would be worth it.

But who could have informed me?  The news anchors on TV, the teachers in school, the broadcasters on the radio, the spokespeople of businesses, and the people running the goddamned country all speak with unfailing impeccability.  As they should.  It is their job to speak well.  Their role in society demands an increased likelihood that their words can be understood by most.  But this constant exposure to perfect speech gives the impression that it is the norm; it erases the existence of those who have speech impediments.

Let’s make this clear–I’m not asking for a social movement of any kind.  I don’t think that the rights of those with speech impediments have been violated.  I do think, however, that representation is important.  More of it couldn’t hurt.

When a teenage girl with a lifelong insecurity about her voice sees a woman with a similar struggle speak on one of the most famous stages, letting the whole world hear her impediment without shame, the girl watching will be hit by a sense of pure relief.  She just might be moved to tears.

-M.L.

 

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