Saturday, September 28, 2013

Speech Problems and Social Anxiety

After my speech disorder began, it was so hard and painful for me to speak that I emotionally wanted to shut down. With no diagnosis for my unintelligible speech, I became afraid of social situations with people I didn’t know and, if I had to speak, I became even more anxious. I felt my heart race as my palms got cold and clammy. I wanted to run off and hide so I could avoid feeling humiliated because I couldn’t speak. Undiagnosed for almost forty years, I experienced these typical feelings of social anxiety hundreds of times. However, once I was diagnosed and knew that I had a severe speech disorder due to a physical problem with my voice, I began to feel better about myself and suffered less from social anxiety symptoms. Once in a while they creep into my life. For the most part, though, they are gone.

In my case social anxiety symptoms were a result of my speech problem, not the cause. With social anxiety the most common fears are interaction with strangers, any kind of public speaking, or that we will be publicly judged, rejected, humiliated or embarrassed. It lends itself to vocal problems that may show up in the form of a shaky or nervous-sounding voice, a voice that cracks, rapid speech, a dry throat, a stammer, stutter, or muteness. It is not unusual for any of us to occasionally experience any of these symptoms, but if they become a pattern, we need to seek help from a doctor or therapist. In order to begin treating it, though, it is essential to understand if the symptoms are due to something wrong with the voice, or if something is wrong with the voice due to a social anxiety.

The work place is where I have seen people suffer the most from social anxiety. Two people I have worked with come to mind. One lovely young woman is a teacher. She is excellent at her job where she works with special needs children. Although some might view her job as stressful, she seems very relaxed in the classroom. She appears to be comfortable in most situations outside of the classroom too. However, if she is asked to speak to a group of adults or is placed in a position of authority amongst adults it is almost impossible to hear her. Her voice becomes so quiet that it sounds like it is almost gone.

Another very artistic young person I know is a joy to be around. I always feel very relaxed when I am with her and I usually find myself complimenting her on whatever she is wearing because of her creative flair. On the surface she looks like someone who has a lot of confidence. However, if she is asked to say anything in a large public venue or to a group, her throat gets so dry that she can’t speak at all.

Sadly, children also suffer from social anxiety. One I know is a darling and very bright four-year old boy. When he is at home with his family he is constantly talking. In this environment he is active and normal for his age in every way. However, at school and out in the world when he is with strangers, he becomes mute. His parents had worried that something was wrong with their son’s speech but this little boy can speak very well when he is emotionally at ease. He suffers from a form of social anxiety called Selective Mutism. It occurs when someone who is capable of speaking is unable to do so, but only in certain situations and/or with certain people. Adults and children both suffer from this, but one of the big concerns about Selective Mutism with children is that it can and often does impede their academic growth.

Like stress, social anxiety is brought on when we think we are in danger. However, stress is a response to a particular thing or situation and goes away when the stressor is gone. Anxiety doesn’t. Social anxiety might be based on a bad experience or come from our imagination. In either case, the stressor can be long gone but someone with this condition will still be suffering from it. When I thought I might have social anxiety I had to learn how to handle it. Here are some of the things that helped.

Exercise definitely helps to ward off anxiety. Even though my symptoms of social anxiety were due to a speech disability, exercise helped me to calm down and make my ability to speak a little easier. Since social anxiety plays with the head as much as the body, find an exercise that gets you going like jogging, cycling, hiking, walking, or even gardening. It will greatly help you to naturally relax, sleep better, and distract you from whatever causes your problem.

Relaxation techniques like a yoga class can be greatly beneficial. Just like a meditation, anything that attempts to slow you down and helps you to breathe more easily will calm you and relieve anxieties.

Too much caffeine, sugar and alcohol can increase anxiety. This is also true for any kind of drug and/or supplement, including herbs and vitamins. Always check with your doctor if you are using any kind of substance regularly. You may want to cut these out entirely and overhaul your diet. This alone can make an enormous difference in your overall health.

Some severe social anxiety does require seeing a therapist and/or taking medication. Since the main problem concerns other people, the best type of therapy is in a group setting. However, if you work on improving the basics like diet, sleep and exercise, you may be able to manage and eventually remove this condition from your life in your own way and time.

One of my favorite things is what I call decompression. I rarely have bright lights or loud music on because I find them to be over-stimulating and stressful. Similarly, if you’re feeling anxious, don’t watch a scary movie, action film, or listen to any kind of angry music. Instead, find something that soothes you. Watch a film that is light and funny, or occupy yourself with a creative outlet that you enjoy, like painting or writing. Creating a journal about your anxiety might help you to come to grips with it better too. 

Although social anxiety can create speech problems, we can learn to control and even get rid of it. I actually think of social and other anxieties as bad habits, like anything we unconsciously adopt. But bad habits should be broken. I believe the best way to start is by accepting it. We need to recognize that social anxiety wears down a person’s confidence so our job is to build ourselves back up. This means being kind to ourselves and to others who may be suffering from this condition, and not being hard on ourselves if a social situation or someone throws us off. It’s important to move on and focus on our good points. Then, hopefully, as easily as the social anxiety came into our lives, we’ll notice one day that it has suddenly rolled off our back and is simply gone. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Disabled and Courageous Living

Years ago, during a conversation about my speech problem, a friend of mine said something that I will never forget. She told me, “I think you’re one of the most courageous people I know.” I was completely flabbergasted. I responded, “I’ve never viewed myself that way. I just did what I had to do to make my life work.” Then she added, “But Iris, I find it remarkable that you never let your speech problem stop you from following your dreams. You never gave up.”

I have thought about my friend’s words many times. And, since I’ve been speech disabled for most of my life, some related questions have repeatedly come up.

I’ve asked if I just happen to be someone who was born with a “never give up” spirit or did I develop it because of my speech problem? My answer is yes to both parts of this question. I was born with a relentless spirit that said, “If you tell me I can’t do something, then I’ll prove that I can.” Unfortunately, this worked against me regarding my speech problem. As hard as I tried, I could never speak fluently because (as I learned late in life after my diagnosis) it is something of a physical nature that I can’t control. However, this same spirit fueled my pursuit of almost everything else, and having a speech problem fueled it even more.

I’ve also asked myself if a disability gets the best of some people and keeps them from pursuing their dreams. Again, my answer is yes. There certainly are people who don’t have my spirit, and any kind of hardship may negatively change their life. However, I think most people, disabled or not, are like me.

When I was struck with the inability to speak as a pre-teen, I felt very weak and lost. Whatever was to happen, though, I made a decision to live life and not be afraid of it. For the almost forty years that I was undiagnosed, this was very hard. Yet, over time I gained a little more strength and it just kept building. I have always tried to live by my decision to face life, whatever the circumstances. And, in this regard, I know I’m not alone.

Everyday each of us might have to choose whether or not to live according to what we believe is morally correct. We often have to make decisions based on our values and act upon them, no matter what. For instance, if things don’t go our way, can we still be loving, respectful and kind? I think this is what truly takes courage. It is true for a nurse, or a cancer patient, or a teacher, or anyone who gets up every morning to go to work in order to feed their family. It is true for me and everyone else. So, although I know that having a disability isn’t for sissies, neither is the act of living.

In the course of my lifetime I have known many people whose lives were filled with hardship, or changed by an accident or illness. It has happened to people from all walks of life at almost every age. Some people I know have had to battle an illness for a long time, or suddenly adapt to living in a wheelchair. However, like me, they never gave up. For instance, I have a young friend who is battling cancer but you would never know it. She always looks her best, greets everyone with a smile, and goes about what she has to do without any complaints. I find her awe-inspiring, but I know that she is one of many. Like her, each of us must determine whether or not to be courageous and do our best with what we have. She and others like her are my heroes. Without even knowing it, I probably pass by many “heroes” on the street everyday.

When I think of living courageously, I am reminded of a nautical concept called “the ninth wave.” At sea, waves grow larger in a series, up to the ninth or largest wave. Although winds can alter the strength and pattern of waves at any given moment, the ninth wave develops from the smallest little movement in the ocean to the biggest. Similarly, when we embrace the twists and turns that life throws us, we can grow stronger and become like the ninth wave. I don't think it takes much. All we need to do is stay open, keep moving forward on our path, and welcome every little wind that pushes us along the way.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Disabilities, Pity and Compassion

Two weeks after I was diagnosed with a severe speech disability in 1999 I received my first treatment for it. I was in a state of wonderment, marveling how lucky I was to have found the missing piece of the biggest puzzle in my life. Having a name for the strange condition I lived with for the past forty years was new for me, as was the miraculous prospect of being able to speak if I responded successfully to treatments.

My doctors explained that it could take years to learn how to speak correctly and sound somewhat normal, but I must respond to the treatments for this to happen. They also said that, if the treatment succeeded, I would have a very breathy voice. I went to my first treatment knowing all of this, hoping that I would sound breathy, but also better.

Ever since my voice problem began as a young girl, I hated the sound of my voice. It was broken and I couldn’t speak at a single pitch. When I tried to talk it uncontrollably went up and down in register, accompanied by a staccato-like quality that was rough and cracked.

I often got very frustrated with my speech problem, but was rarely depressed about it. Yet, even after learning the truth about my condition and responding successfully to my first treatment, I became depressed. I hated the sound of my voice even more. The treatment produced a whispery, almost frog-like timbre. My doctors said it would smooth out, gain volume and sound more normal over time, but – as a woman — I thought it sounded masculine and harsh.

Even though I had the hope of speaking normally one day, I couldn’t get past the external effect of my treatment. I wallowed in self-pity and this went on for weeks. Then one evening, sitting in the dark with the TV on, a program came on about Siamese twins. It was about two sisters and all of the everyday challenges they faced. I found myself in awe of how they went about their lives, doing what they had to do, even though these women had to deal with such an extreme hardship. A part of me was totally inspired, but another part of me felt ashamed of myself for thinking, “It looks like they have it harder than me.” I was shocked when I realized this about myself, but it woke me up. Once I saw how my thought process was going, I vowed that I would never again give into that feeling of pity for myself or anyone else.

Over time, I became involved with many disabled people. Through school, work and personal situations, I made friends and acquaintances who were Deaf, or bound to wheelchairs, or who had lost their voice due to the same condition as mine. At times I found myself about to pity someone but then I would catch myself, focus on that person’s strengths and capabilities, and turn what could have been pity into compassion. That shift helped me to see everyone, including myself, in a completely different light.

As the years passed I was very lucky to get ongoing treatments that enabled me to speak almost normally most of the time. I no longer hated the sound of my voice but actually began praying for the return of that frog-like voice after a procedure.

Still, I experienced lots of people asking me about my voice after treatments. Some people were very caring and it was easy to discuss my situation with them, but others were not. In fact, one day shortly after a successful treatment, a colleague was shocked by the sound of my voice when I said “Good morning.” She asked if I was sick. When I explained what my croaking sound was due to, she responded, “Oh no, that’s awful!” And the look of horror on her face didn’t make me feel much better. Her reaction made me feel defensive, as if something was wrong with me. I felt like I had to explain myself so I assured her that sounding the way I did was a good thing, but she didn’t seem to get it. Her lack of understanding made me feel pitied and it put me off, making me feel distant from her. This is what pity does.

So many experiences like this have made me think about the difference between pity and compassion, and how, in particular, it affects relationships between those who are able-bodied and those who are not. If you’re not used to being around disabled people, perhaps you have a notion that they are sick or helpless. These kinds of ideas play on people’s sympathy but often give the wrong message – that anyone who is disabled is unable to function or contribute to society. I believe that pity comes from a place where people, even those who are well meaning, are uncomfortable or scared by what they see so they can’t empathize with the other person. Compassion, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite.

A shining case-in-point is Helen Keller. If we look at her story we can see how pity and compassion play out. As a blind and deaf mute, Helen Keller’s family pitied her and practically gave up on her. I think Helen’s family lost sight of the spark in her, but her teacher, Anne Sullivan, saw it. While her family allowed Helen to become something of a wild child, Anne Sullivan struggled compassionately with Helen so that she would learn language and develop as a human being. This enabled Helen to become an accomplished author, political activist and lecturer. Helen Keller even co-founded the ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, which serves as an advocate for human rights.

Many people don’t seem to know how to be compassionate with others who have challenges they know nothing about. But I believe we can all learn. Perhaps learning how to be compassionate is learning how to support others. Surely, one can selflessly share in another’s struggle, but I think the act of compassion can be simple too. It can be a caring touch, or a warm hug that makes someone feel better. Over the past few years I’ve tried to be more compassionate by simply smiling more when I see people. It might be for the briefest moment, but sometimes a warm smile or the smallest act of compassion will give someone what they need. Who knows? It might even make their day. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Quality of Life and the Disabled

When I was growing up I heard people talk about quality of life (QOL) versus quantity. As a little girl this didn’t make much sense to me, but in time I learned that most of us want our lives to be long, happy and healthy. I never really thought about this much until I lost my ability to speak normally around the age of twelve. Almost immediately, creating a good QOL for myself was all I could think about. Quantity didn’t even matter.

Growing up, my parents were always trying to make ends meet. Their exhaustion and struggles around finances seemed to produce a constant flow of emotional volatility and dysfunction in our family. I often felt like I was walking on eggshells around my parents, so my QOL wasn’t great to begin with. Then, when I could barely communicate and had no diagnosis for my problem, things got worse. When this happened in the 1960s I was so lost and had such little support that my overwhelming concern was how to make each waking moment okay. I had lots of thoughts like, “How can I avoid struggling to speak with someone?” Or, “I hope I won’t fail but I don’t know how I’m going to get through the report I’m supposed to do at school today.”

My young life became so filled with moment-to-moment challenges that I never sat down and thought, “What does quality of life” mean to me? However, my QOL and the lack of a good one made it more obvious every day that all I wanted was a peaceful home life, to not feel anxious, and to have some kind of inner peace.

Once I was out of my parents’ house and living on my own, my biggest concern became money. I didn’t want to merely survive and eke out a living; I wanted to enjoy life. Still, since my speech was so problematic and I was living in an age where everyone used their voice and the telephone to communicate, my job possibilities were limited. I began to equate a good QOL with one’s standard of living so I thought if I could find a decent job where I used my mind but didn’t have to use my voice, maybe I’d have a chance to lead something of “the good life.” But it was hard. I settled for many jobs that I disliked, where I gained little reward financially or otherwise. I budgeted like crazy and watched every cent I made. I was fired from one job due to my speech and the condition of my voice made me feel very insecure at other jobs. There was little stability in my earning power, but I never gave up. I knew I had to keep going.

Of course, I envied people whose lives seemed easier, and I would periodically break down from the frustration of my situation. To compensate, I overindulged in lots of bad behavior and reckless affairs. I hoped all the drugs and rock ‘n’ roll would help me forget my struggles and up my QOL, but nothing changed.

This went on into my thirties, but then things began to shift. I lost some very significant people – friends and family, including my mother. I also put down two of my most beloved pets. After each passing I asked myself the same question. What was the quality of their life? Were they happy? With every answer I asked the same of myself. My life still felt so challenging, but deep down I also felt that I might be what was blocking my way to something better.  

Although I was terrified of honestly facing the blatant truths about my life, I knew I had to. I had to admit that I might never get a diagnosis for my speech condition, that I may never speak well again, and I may never have a good job. Once I faced these hard realities, I felt relieved. I wasn’t even depressed because I suddenly realized that, although my disability placed all kinds of limitations on me, it also forced me to find out who I was on the inside. It pushed me to discover that I was strong and courageous, so I could improve my life condition in spite of whatever obstacles I might have.

It was fascinating to see that once I faced my disability honestly and accepted everything that came with it, there was no longer a need to fight it in any way. I began to feel much healthier on the inside because I finally recognized the best parts of myself, and this gave me a tremendous sense of power and pride. Interestingly, this switch in my perspective seemed to almost effortlessly produce a much more pleasant life on the outside too. Eventually I was diagnosed, given treatments that enable me to speak, and learned sign language to have a job that is fulfilling.

I believe that most people, whether they are disabled or not, think much more about their QOL when they are personally faced with an adversity. I will always wonder if my disability helped me deal with life’s challenges more easily than others, merely because it was forced on me. Perhaps if I didn’t feel so pressed to face my challenges and work creatively around them, I would be a totally different person. I don’t know.

What I do know is that being disabled has played a key role in creating “the good life” I now live. Although money has little part in this, I consider myself to be enormously wealthy. It is a wealth that gives me a happy and peaceful feeling on the inside, and that seems to naturally result in the same on the outside too. Again, I don’t know if I gained this wealth because my disability demanded me to dig deeper to recognize my strengths, but I suspect that many people with disabilities may have acquired such wealth too. However, this wealth certainly isn’t just for the disabled. It is a treasure inside each of us just waiting to be found. All it takes is a little courage and some persistent digging around. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sign Language Isn’t Only for the Deaf, Part V: Learning Sign Language

Note: As previously mentioned in my blogs from September 2011 and February 2013, Big D for Deaf refers to people who identify themselves as culturally deaf. They will have a strong Deaf identity, attend schools for the Deaf, and mainly associate with other members of the Deaf community. Small d for deaf refers to the condition as well as to deaf people who identify more with the hearing or mainstream, and regard their hearing loss only in medical, not cultural, terms. (From

People suddenly stricken with a voice affliction may not want to immediately learn sign language. They may be overwhelmed by the dysfunction or loss of their voice, and the idea of learning a new language may be the last thing on their mind. Like learning any foreign language, it requires time and practice. But, learning sign language is fun and great medicine too. After struggling for decades to be understood with an undiagnosed voice disorder, I was thrilled to be able to learn a means of communication that didn’t rely on my voice.

Some people learn home or made up signs (see and study sign systems like SEE signs (Signing Exact English). These are not part of an official language that will enable you to communicate with others. So, if you’re going to make the effort, you should study the recognized sign language for your native tongue. ASL (American Sign Language) is used in the U.S. Variations of it are also used worldwide as well as in Austria, Canada, Germany, Finland, Malaysia and Norway. Since I am an American whose native tongue is English, I’ll focus on ASL. Here are my suggestions on how to get started.

The first thing you need is a good ASL dictionary. I began my studies with “The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary” published by Gallaudet University Press. It is organized by the hand shapes that form signs, and not by English words in alphabetical order. I bought it at a used bookstore and it’s been an invaluable part of my learning experience. Of course, there is a vast selection to choose from and something else may better suit you. So, browse your local bookstore’s language section or go online to see what you prefer.

Any good ASL dictionary will include a chart of the ASL alphabet. Learn this first. I used to practice the ASL alphabet when I was walking around town. Since I’m right-handed, I began with that hand and then I learned it with my left. Once you feel comfortable, practice spelling out your name so that you will be able to introduce yourself in ASL. The first sentence I learned was, “Hello, my name is Iris.” In ASL, this is “Hello, my name Iris.” The word “is” is not used.

While you are doing this, you may be interested in looking at This site shows elementary signs and how to practice them. You can print out their chart and put it on the refrigerator or a spot where it will be frequently seen by your family and friends. Or, you may want to purchase their flash cards and carry them around to help you and those around you learn.

Once you feel ready to move onto a more in-depth study, a wonderful site is at It provides 100 basic signs, along with a video that demonstrates each one. This makes it easy because you don’t have to figure out which signs to learn. There’s no guesswork involved, just practice.

As your signing grows, you’ll want to visit other sites like ASL Pro at to develop your skills and better understand how to correctly make the signs. This particular site has thousands of words and phrases. Like many of the other online tutorials, ASL Pro has a video demonstration for each of its signs.

In the past it was almost impossible for many hearing parents to learn sign language, but today there are many free tutorials online that make it convenient. For example, if you live in northern California, you can register at This is provided through the California School for the Deaf, featuring twelve weeks of 30-minute classes. If you’re new at this and don’t know anyone who is deaf, you may want to begin by contacting your local school for the deaf. It’s another great place to start.

My guess is that once you begin signing, you’ll get hooked. Starting with books and online classes is fine, but the point of learning any language is to share our thoughts and ideas with others. So, please try to get out and take a class or find a friend or partner who will sign with you on a regular basis.

I chose to learn ASL by attending a two-year program at a local community college. Except for my first instructor who was a CODA (child of deaf adults) and only used her voice during my first class, all of my teachers were Deaf and there was no speaking allowed. This not only taught me the language properly, but it immediately gave me a better insight into the world of the Deaf and their culture – something we learn in the study of any foreign tongue.

If you attend a sign language class, you will also become informed of Deaf events. I urge you to attend as many of these as possible. This is where you will discover a new world, get to share ASL with others, and hone your signing skills. Some people you meet at these events will be hearing, but most will be d/Deaf. Given this opportunity, you will quickly see that, whether your signing skills are good or not, you will be appreciated for your efforts and what comes from inside.

In concluding this series, I hope you will seriously consider learning sign language. The moment I began to learn ASL I felt empowered. Over time, as my skills improved, it opened doors for me that had been closed most of my life. It gave me meaningful work and a confidence in expressing myself that I felt robbed of due to my speech disability. Perhaps, though, the most important thing about learning ASL for me is that it confirmed what I believed to be true when I was barely twelve years old and lost my ability to speak. It taught me that sign language isn’t only for the deaf.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sign Language Isn’t Only for the Deaf, Part IV: Why Learn How to Sign?

“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a saying that couldn’t be more aptly used than in the formation of sign language. In my past few blogs on this subject, I hope you have gained some understanding of the enormous amount of work and creativity that resulted in what we know today as official sign languages. But, given this and all of the technological wizardry that can help the voiceless be heard, you may still ask: Why should anyone who isn’t deaf learn how to sign?

Personally, as someone who is speech disabled, the most advanced technological device could never replace what comes directly from my heart and mind. I know that a machine can say, “I want to go to dinner,” “Good morning,” and all the other things that I may want to communicate. But, if I want to speak with someone about politics, religion, and philosophy or just offer my personal perspective on life, I want to have the ability to express myself in my own words and in my own way. Sign language provides this.

I am only one of thousands (or perhaps millions) around the globe who is speech impaired. My life is much fuller because I learned how to sign, so I strongly believe that people with ailments like stuttering and speech loss due to illness can also have the same experience.

For instance, those afflicted with Down syndrome have a tongue that is too long so it is difficult for them to speak. According to, “Creating signs comes earlier for many children than saying the corresponding word, both for children with Down syndrome and normally developing youngsters. Perhaps the oral motor planning required for talking is more complex than instructions for the hands in signing.”

Additionally, although sign language is also visual, the blind are not totally excluded from using a very important element in signing, called fingerspelling. Looking at the story of Helen Keller, I am reminded that perhaps the most famous blind and deaf person first discovered language through fingerspelling, “the process of spelling out words by using signs that correspond to the letters of the word. There are lots of times when fingerspelling is used, most commonly for naming people, places, movies, books, and brands. Or maybe there is a sign, but it is just as fast or faster to fingerspell the word.” (See:

Before Helen Keller understood language, she learned words. She learned her first word – her first meaningful message – through fingerspelling. Helen Keller wrote, “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.” (See:

Of course, there are many people who don’t learn sign language out of necessity, but do it anyway. When I attended school to learn ASL (American Sign Language) there was one other person like me who was speech disabled. Besides my Deaf instructors, everyone else I met was hearing. Some had a close relative, friend or co-worker who was Deaf and it was important for them to be able to communicate fully with them. For most of the students, though, learning ASL was fun and, like the study of any foreign language, provided a new way of looking at the world. This was 2006 and I then discovered that many American high schools and colleges offered ASL to satisfy foreign language requirements.

This popularity of sign language is also evident among parents who use sign language to teach their babies and toddlers to communicate. “Since hand-eye coordination develops sooner than acquisition of verbal skills, infants can learn simple signs for common words such as eat, sleep, more, hug, play, cookie, and teddy bear before they are able to produce understandable speech.” (See: As a result, many studies have proposed that children who began signing before they could speak have an advantage over those who didn’t, like better comprehension, the ability to verbalize their needs earlier, as well as less frustration at getting their basic needs met.

Sometimes I just enjoy the fact that I can use ASL to talk with someone across a crowded room or in a theater or other area where it should be quiet. I’ve also loved using ASL on numerous occasions when I’m in traffic, like at a four-way intersection where no one seems to know who should go first. I just naturally go to my hands and utilize signs that I know everyone will understand. It works like a charm.

If you don’t know how to sign but are interested, I hope you’ll join me for my next blog. I’ll give you some easy steps to help you start learning this incredible language that is not just for the deaf, but for everyone.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sign Language Isn’t Only for the Deaf, Part III: The Fight To Be Heard

People all over the world have fought for their liberty and the right to speak freely. So have the Deaf. In their case, as well as for anyone without a voice, they have had to fight against a speech and hearing-oriented society that often has refused to see and hear them. Because I am speech disabled, I have experienced this firsthand. As soon as I lost my ability to speak normally around 1960 I started to learn about the ignorance of prejudice. Quickly I found out just how hard it is to be recognized and accepted for who I am, because I happen to be different. Like the Deaf, I have had to learn how to get people to focus on my strengths, not my limitation.

As I mentioned in my previous blog (dated February 24, 2013), sign language was kept alive in America due to the efforts of many. I noted one man in particular – the educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet who founded the first school for deaf children in 1817. Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, became superintendent and then president of the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind. Located in Washington D.C., the school began with eight students and conferred its first degrees in 1864, signed by President Lincoln. Five years later, three graduates received diplomas signed by President Grant, and the presiding U.S. president has continued this tradition ever since. In 1954 the name of the school was changed to Gallaudet College, in honor of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Then, over thirty years later in 1986 after many upgrades and favorable expansions took place, the school was granted university status. Gallaudet University established itself as a thriving center for American Sign Language (ASL) and the educational advancement of Deaf people all over the world.

I learned about Gallaudet University when I began to study ASL. With my lifelong speech problem, I loved knowing that a highly acclaimed American university existed where sign language was the norm. As part of my studies I volunteered for six months at the California School for the Deaf (CSD) and that gave me a hint of what it must be like at Gallaudet. Even with my speech problem, I still had to be reminded many times to sign and not speak at CSD. It was not a quiet place, as deaf people don’t have a hearing person’s concept of sound and may be noisy, but it made me so relaxed and happy to know that I wouldn’t be forced to use my voice.

It was inspiring for me to volunteer at a Deaf school and learn about the success of Gallaudet University. However, I also learned about the far less inspiring side of Gallaudet’s past. Since its inception, Gallaudet never had a Deaf president until March 1988. And, this historic change only came about as the result of a protest where the Deaf were finally heard. It is known as Deaf President Now (DPN).

DPN began when Gallaudet University’s Board of Trustees announced the appointment of the school’s seventh president. Like all of the previous ones, he was hearing. In reaction, the students, staff, faculty and alumni managed to shut down the campus. At the time, a faculty member named Dr. Allen Sussman said, “If deaf persons are not considered good enough to run the university then what’s the point of having a university for deaf people?” (See After five days of protests and news coverage that was shown around the globe, I. King Jordan, a deaf person, was appointed president.

In one week’s time, DPN became synonymous with self-determination and empowerment for deaf and hard of hearing people everywhere. I. King Jordan's leadership heightened public awareness of the important educational contributions made by Gallaudet University. Yet, although I. King Jordan became a well-known spokesperson for the deaf and people with disabilities, Jordan didn’t grow up Deaf. He was 21 when he lost his hearing so he was deaf according to the establishment’s medical concept of deafness. He came from the hearing world and spoke English. Jordan remained connected to his roots and he never actively advocated ASL or Deaf culture. However, the two presidents appointed since are Deaf and openly embrace both of these things. Gallaudet University, which stands for the educational advancement of the Deaf and ASL, now truly reflects this position.

The history of Gallaudet University is but one example of how those without a voice have to fight to not only be heard, but also understood. My speech disability has taught me a lot about this struggle too. Even in our modern age, the bias and lack of understanding toward those who are unable to speak is pervasive. As Albert Einstein said, “It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.” I agree, but I'll keep fighting the fight. To overcome a prejudice is well worth the effort.