While being caught up in the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics, not for the first time I found myself wanting to be an athlete rather than a writer. The incredible sight of the disabled aesthetic being so celebrated in a public – indeed, a worldwide – forum left me emotionally energised. Just for a moment I found myself amongst the group being lionised. The commentary didn’t interest me, it was more the affirmation of seeing people like me acknowledged on primetime television as world-class athletes and artists. It wasn’t a sense of inspiration or triumph over tragedy but a recognition that these people put in effort and time and commitment to be part of a display of excellence. Knowing their journey, knowing their history and realising that the universality of disability or impairment runs the gamut of class, education, geography, ethnicity and gender is powerful. It is powerful because it reinforces a narrative of pride. The ceremony was thrilling and I really was empowered by the sheer possibilities and exposure that this enormous gig will afford not only the athletes but also the artists. Then I was brought back to reality. The cuts in service provision for disabled people in
Acknowledging my own reality: “You want the red or the blue?” As she nods her head, her voice is rising. Loud and slow, she has her audience and my face is getting redder by the second. “One more time,” still nodding the head, “red or blue?”, as she pushes the dresses into my face. My instinct tells me just to press the joystick on my motorised chair and move off. Embarrass her like she’s embarrassing you, I think to myself. Instead, I point to a green dress. The rest of the transaction is done in silence. She doesn’t meet my eyes.
Coming from a family of singers, the voice is something that I love. My speech impediment has shaped the way I live my life. There have been moments where my voice has let me down by losing my message and thought in translation to another person. There are moments when I’ve wanted to interject, make a joke, be a smart aleck, or even throw in a snide comment in the conversation. To my embarrassment, I’ve learnt it doesn’t work! In the world, the voice and how we project it and we hear it, holds a lot of power.
Over the course of my life, I've met lots of other people with speech impediments. We face all sorts of discrimination and often we stop ourselves from doing things because of the way we talk and the fear of not being understood. In some other countries, it's quite usual for people with speech impediments to be part of public disability arts and culture, particularly in the United Kingdom. Not in Ireland. The Irish tendency is to laugh, dismiss and ridicule someone who speaks slowly. In part this is because of the extremely fast speech patterns of Hiberno-English and Ulster English – those who cannot compete with the speedy speech around them are definitely disadvantaged. Moreover, we Irish seem to be still grappling with anything other than firmly middle-class accents on our airwaves; to speak both slowly and with a non-middle-class accent invites further condescension, if not ridicule.
“Well, it’s just the presenter. He wouldn’t be comfortable and listeners have a short attention span. You’ve lots of interesting things to say but maybe radio is not your format. Even with prerecording and set questions, your voice just wouldn’t work. Believe me, I’ve worked in radio for 20 years. This kind of thing, maybe a specialised programme late at night or at the weekend, but not at primetime listening. Oh, I’m so sorry. Don’t cry. It’s not you, it’s our audience. There are plenty of other things you can do. Your writing career, who knows? That may be an avenue that could be open to you. Louise, will you take Ms. McDonagh down to reception,” as he hands me a tissue.
As a teenager, pretending to be a newsreader. On the radio. My parents bought me an old cassette recorder, because at a parent-teacher meeting they were told I wasn’t cooperating with the speech therapy. For me, speech therapy was always about a corrective rather than supportive methodology. There was also the hint – well, it was more than a hint – that my Traveller accent needed to be erased. Sometimes, in a burst of banter, I’d get mixed up and start using Cant dialect (Traveller language) rather than Hiberno-English. Such a monologue was never planned or at least speaking in Cant wasn’t. But sometimes with service providers, especially speech therapists, it would just happen out of pure frustration on my part. The old cassette recorder: my parents, they were geniuses. For them, it was a way of building my confidence, letting me play the game of newsreading; this is how I first started writing and performing. My family, even to this day, will always tell me, “We don’t applaud effort – we applaud style.”
It’s comical how my family and Traveller friends try to disguise their Pavee accent. Of course, I’m not laughing at the reasons why they feel they have to hide it. Racism is never funny. However, I’ve done it myself to fit in or be part of the joke. My laughter has something to do with how we try to imitate a settled accent. I don’t know any posh Traveller sites but I know a lot of posh Travellers!
In many formal settings - when speaking at a conference for example or on the rare occasions I am asked to speak on radio, being unduly grateful just to be included. Overcompensating by trying to mask or modify my impediment to a greater extent than the natural speech-pattern, switching, adopting a somewhat different accent to my home-based Pavee one, speaking with exceptional care, using shorter and more simple words. Pictorial imagery allows my audience have another way into the conversation. Planning each sentence out with care gives my speech a rather unnatural form compared with talking with family or friends. Nervousness, the fear of losing my train of thought, then my confidence and finally the audience. Talking is hard work.
Speech impediments really do affect a person's confidence and opportunities in life. Having a speech impediment, you're just a muffled, incoherent voice. We're rarely heard on radio or television. Voiceover once suggested. My response was “would they use subtitles on radio”? Loving the Pavee accent, whenever I hear one on the radio, nostalgia sets in and my singing starts!
“Hello? Could you repeat?” (Long pause) After several repeats: “Are you distressed? Are you drunk?” Suddenly I hear the dial tone; the ticket operator has hung up. I dial again. A new voice. “Hello? Could you repeat? Is this a prank call?” Then they ask, “Are you alone? Is there an adult there with you? A carer?” This time, it’s my turn to hang up.
If a voice sounds middle class and confident, the speaker is considered to be competent and capable. If a voice is soft and weak, we deem the person as being shy and gentle but ultimately incapable. When I ran for the Senate election, the media avoided me and one voter took it upon himself to tell me how much he’d like to have given me his vote but felt it would be wasted because politicians need to be able to speak clearly. My unclear speech outweighed the clarity of what it was I had to say.
When you have a speech impediment, you tend to do badly at school, drift away into your own little world, organise your life so that you have as little verbal interaction with strangers as possible. When you're dealing with officialdom, the bank, etc. you just pretend you can't talk. It's easier. I know it's a lie and it's wrong but they're not going to understand you and there's a queue behind you. People shout at you or talk very loudly so you've no privacy about your business. So why give them that power? It's easier just to pretend not to be able to talk.
At the job interview, on the application form, do I, don’t I? That is the dilemma. Over the years, as good practice, I would always let them know, “I’m a wheelchair user.” This is the done thing if I get called for an interview. But then what? How do you say “I have a speech impediment?” By stating it, am I discriminating against myself? Will they think I want a sign interpreter, even though I haven’t mentioned anything about being deaf? If I don’t tell them, what happens? They get uncomfortable and I feel mad at myself because I colluded with my own humiliation. On the application form, there isn’t a space to say, “I have a speech impediment, but I am capable and competent to do the interview.”
Like lots of people with speech impediments, non-impaired people take it upon themselves to finish your sentence. It’s easier to go along with it. I hand over my lovely, soft, cerebral palsied, Sligo Pavee accent to someone who doesn't have my intonation or dulcet tones.
My speech impediment has really been something I find so difficult to manage to express or even to allow myself to think about. It's not vanity; it’s a matter of self esteem and confidence. On a good day when the pride is pouring out of me it’s usually after watching or listening to other disabled people with speech impediments. As a writer I struggle with writing about impairment. As an activist I am supposed to critique anti-disability discrimination in society, while as a woman the reality of living with impairment intersects anti-disability prejudice with the sexism that all women experience, which itself intersects with the racism that Travellers face in Irish society. In all of these spheres, speaking clearly is important, but it is not me who gets to define what “speaking clearly” means.
Delightfully, watching the Paralympics, the motif of the opening ceremony was provided by a disabled person with speech impairment, the physicist Stephen Hawking. Seeing such a public manifestation of profound disability and impairment being normalised and made mainstream, I found myself thinking of other examples of people with speech impairments moving firmly into the centre of public discourse. My favourite comedians are both disabled, both have speech impediments, and more importantly, both make and produce brilliant comedy. Laurence Clark, who showcased his work in the Edinborough comedy festival with his show Don’t Kill the Puppies (http://www.laurenceclark.com) and the lovely Ms Francesca Martinez (http://www.francescamartinez.com). While the content of their speech is perhaps not as erudite as Professor Hawking’s Paralympic description of creation, they defy comedic clichés about disability. Both comedians celebrate their speech impediments as part of their artistic performances. Not once have either of them had someone say “Could you repeat that gag, I didn’t quite get what you were saying.”