"What?" Is the Question (Fall 2021 Breaking Barriers)

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This article is part of our Breaking Barriers Fall 2021. This installment features articles on people living with speech differences and the challenges they face, adaptations they have made, and the power of listening and being heard. If you'd like to read more stories from this issue, please subscribe to Breaking Barriers.

According to Google, on an average day, women speak 16,215 words and men speak 15,669. I was born with cerebral palsy, use an electric wheelchair, and my speech pattern is irregular. Let me assure you: I speak every word of my 16,215-word daily allotment! It helps that most of my conversations are with people who have learned my speech patterns, but sometimes even they ask me the "What?" question, i.e. "What did you say?"

It gets wearisome constantly repeating myself. Yet it is better than the alternative: people trying to guess what I want or need. For me, "What?" is a signal that someone cares enough not only about what I am trying to say, but also that I am valued as a person. I’d rather hear a thousand "what" questions to one, “I can’t understand you!” When that’s the response, my body tightens up, making my speech even more difficult to understand.

With these ongoing challenges, one might think I would shy away from speaking, but I have enjoyed and excelled at public speaking since I aced public speaking class in high school. I taught a monthly class at the local Community Mental Health department for 13 years, which led me to check out the local chapter of Toastmasters International, a worldwide public speaking and leadership organization. In 2019, I earned my Distinguished Toastmaster’s Award, a designation that fewer than 2 percent of the worldwide membership accomplishes.

My advice to you: Don’t put a person in a place of submissive discomfort. A good mantra to follow instead is: Be patient, and don’t hesitate to ask the "What?" question.

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Community Builder

Congratulations on your award.  I am one of the people who have not learned your speech patterns yet, and I never seem to get the chance to do so.  I guess I would need more exposure, but so far it hasn't happened. 

Community Builder

Congratulations on your award.  I am one of the people who have not learned your speech patterns yet, and I never seem to get the chance to do so.  I guess I would need more exposure, but so far it hasn't happened.