Identifying with a speech impairment

I recently took part in a Toastmasters speech contest, and preparing for it really got me thinking about my speech impairment.  For those of you who haven’t seen my earlier blogs, Toastmasters is a global organisation with local public speaking clubs all over the world.

Every year Toastmasters has an International Speech Contest, and this is the first year I’ve been eligible to compete.  I won the club contest, which put me through to the area contest with speakers from four other clubs, where I came third.

I used a speech I’d already delivered, so I could work on improving the finer points rather than starting from scratch.  This meant I could really focus on the clarity of my speech.  People at Toastmasters have commented on how much clearer I’ve become as a speaker over the last couple of years, so I wanted to see how much more I could improve that if I really put some work into it.

The first time I’d delivered this speech it had been videoed, so I watched it back and listened carefully to the clarity of it.  I was immediately able to identify a few points where words weren’t so clear so that I could put a little extra effort into those parts.  Then I got into the nitty gritty.

As I worked on my speech content, changing bits slightly to make it better, I recorded it in sections and listened back to it, identifying all the points where I wasn’t so clear.  Finding these points meant that I could try out different ways of saying something, and consciously saying those parts more clearly transformed the speech.

It was fascinating learning how my speech really worked.  It was also completely new that I wanted to pay proper attention to it.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve thought at all about the clarity of my speech.  I had speech therapy as a child, which I enjoyed when I was at junior school.  I think the pictures helped to be honest.  They made it fun and engaging.  You see, speech therapy for me was about concentrating on certain sounds.  So I would repeat words (represented by said pictures) with those sounds in them.  I was given sentences to say as well, some of which I even made up with my speech therapist or teaching assistant, which made the whole thing a lot more engaging.

Then I hit secondary school.  Different story altogether.

I had no speech therapist anymore, and no time in the school week to do my speech exercises.  So it fell by the wayside, and I forgot all about it.

Until a speech therapist was brought into school, probably when I was in Year 8.  Gone were the pictures, gone were the sentences.  But that was OK, I wasn’t a child anymore.

I wasn’t, a child, anymore.

The speech therapist gave me sheets of words that had certain sounds in them like ‘sh’ and ‘ch’.  I was given these exercises to do at home, to read out these lists of words in front of a mirror.

I was a teenager.  Did I do them?  No.

I was far too embarrassed!  I didn’t want my family to hear me doing these silly exercises!  What’s more, I couldn’t see the point in doing them.  They were never going to make a difference in how I spoke.  As far as I was concerned I spoke the way I spoke and nothing was going to change that.

There was something deeper, though.  I knew I was disabled, that I couldn’t do everything my peers could do physically.  My speech was a different matter though.   You see, I can’t hear my impairment when I speak; I sound as clear to me as everyone else does.  So being told as a teenager, when suddenly everyone cares about being ‘normal’ and fitting in, that I had to do these speech exercises forced me to acknowledge that I had a speech impairment.  And I didn’t want to.  I think it was the only part of my disability that I didn’t want to identify with.   At all.

So this is the first time I’ve ever really wanted to work on my speech.  It’s become crucial for me to work on it because I want to be a professional speaker.  I can’t do that if I can’t be understood.

Toastmasters has really helped me accept that I have a speech impairment.  The whole ethos of the clubs, to help people on their personal journeys to becoming better speakers, has meant that I’ve felt fully supported on my journey.  People have been genuinely interested in what I have to say, and have given me valuable feedback.  They haven’t just given me a pat on the head, or been afraid to give me points for improvement, but instead have picked up on things that help me to become the best speaker that I can be by using my voice and speech in the best way possible.

I’m not embarrassed about having a speech impairment anymore, I’m happy to work with it.

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