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The Double Edged Sword of Speech

When my mother was very young, the doctor told my grandmother that her daughter would never speak because of the severity of her cleft palate. But my grandmother refused to believe it. She bought and borrowed speech pathology books, this is in the late 1930’s- early 1940’s in Yorkshire, and taught my mum how to speak herself.  Pretty impressive for a woman who wasn’t allowed to go to school after grade 6!

I now have some of those books.

It was such an act of love from my grandmother, countless hours dedicated to giving her daughter the gift of speech, yet the exercises my mum was forced to do repeatedly to be able to speak, as well as the palate surgery as a child, would have been gruelling for her, who also lived undiagnosed with autism and ADHD. (I was just reading the other day that there is a high instance of autism in people with cleft palates… go figure!).

Children with cleft lip and palate (CLP) also had an increased risk of ASD. Children with cleft palate only (CPO) presented with higher hazard ratios, and additionally for psychotic disorders, ADHD, and other behavioral or emotional disorders in childhood”

This was during world war 2. My mum remembered catching a train to Manchester to go to the hospital for one of her surgeries, and seeing the train station bombed! So times in general were very tough.

My mother and Grandmother, Yorkshire, circa 1944

And my grandmother was very strict. She told my mother not to play imaginary games and made her focus on her speech and her study. My mother’s cousin told me once, while I was visiting Yorkshire from Australia, that he remembered he and my mother as children playing. My mum suggested ‘Let’s pretend we are King and Queen’. My grandmother heard and immediately interjected ‘No. Do not pretend,’ shutting the game down.

Apologies yet again for the bad AI lol. The prompt: a boy and girl in working class Yorkshire pretending to be King and Queen, their mother pointing a finger at them hehehe! Spooky! hehehe

I can sort of understand. My grandmother was not allowed to go to high school because she was a girl, and then when she was married she was not allowed to have anything to do with her husband’s bakery business because she was a woman. And in the end the bakery, and the marriage, went down the gurgler, partly because of her husband’s gambling habit. My grandmother was very frustrated with the inequity she experienced due to her gender. And she believed the only way a woman could get ahead was to go into business. So my autistic-ADHD mother with a speech impediment who actually loved painting, was forced to study business. She did pretty well with shorthand and typing and had secretarial jobs for short periods of time over the years, but it never lasted long. There were always issues with co-workers and she often felt bullied or targeted. I remember this as a child. It must have been exhausting for her, negotiating the dynamics of a workplace with her unacknowledged and unsupported disabilities.

Learning how to speak was a pivotal thing for my mother for sure. My grandmother did an amazing job. But being forced to shut down her imagination and pretend to be someone she wasn’t had a devastating effect on my mother. My grandmother told me once that my mother was ‘always difficult’, ‘lazy’ and ‘always throwing tantrums’ as a child. With no understanding of autism back then my mum was perceived as being badly behaved, which in itself is traumatising. As a result of this and her speech impediment, she struggled her whole life with low self-worth, depression, violence and neglect towards her family, and with making friends. She acted as if everything was normal. None of it was acknowledged. Everything was a mask. Speech actually became a burden. So often she was exhausted and depressed by her attempts to fit in based on speech which weren’t in resonance with who she was. Did the gift of speech actually help her I wonder, if she was unable to speak the truth of her experience? The irony that on one hand she was taught to speak, but on the other hand, not allowed to express herself, as a child, and how that stayed with her for life.

I Blow Bubbles. Big, Big Bubbles, Bright Bubbles, Blue Bubbles, Bright Blue Bubbles- an exercise from one of my mothers speech books.

Ironically, my grandmother used to praise me as a child for my good speech. ‘Well you speak well,’ she would say ‘and that is very important.’ My grandmother used to talk about how awful the broad Yorkshire accent was. She cringed on hearing it, and considered it vulgar and uncouth. To her it represented ignorance. The ignorance of her people who suppressed women, who were cruel to their animals, alcoholic, remaining in a stuck mentality and poverty mind set. Once my grandmother told me that ‘the best thing that ever happened to England was the BBC, because then people started to speak ‘proper English’.

I can understand it. I felt like that about the bogan culture I grew up in, in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Especially the limiting attitudes towards women and to LGBTQI people, the racism, and the bullying culture made me want to reject where I came from, and the broad suburban Ozzy accent represented that to me.

Indeed, we base a lot of our judgements of others on speech, particularly on what speech represents in terms of class. Often, in judging people because of the way they speak we are judging them because of their perceived class, or, as I believe was often the case with my mother, judging their intellect by their speech.

Speech pathology is a huge industry now days, especially with disability insurance schemes all around the world, and thankfully support is widely available for kids at school who struggle with communication. This is an awesome thing. What a life line a speech pathologist can be for a young person struggling to navigate communication in the world. I can imagine, for my mother, making the right phonetic sounds when speaking, would have been pivotal life skills for her. Learning how to navigate communication as an autistic person also would have been pivotal, even undiagnosed. As a writer and artist I have also supported people with perceived disabilities through my work to express themselves through poetry and performance. I love this work. And seeing how affective creativity can be in opening up expression in its most nuanced form is powerful. But there is also often a lot of pressure for those people to learn to be ‘normal’ coming from the outside world, families, and program managers, rather than learning to express their own uniqueness and creativity.

I think of my mother, forced to learn by rote how to speak, while pushing her true creative nature down. I think of Deaf kids, forced to learn to lip read and speak English, rather than being given the opportunity to learn their beautiful and rich sign language with it’s spatial grammer. Speech is wonderful, but creativity is way way more important in my view, in whatever way that expresses itself, whether through speech or otherwise. And so in learning to communicate with speech, children should know it is not the only avenue for them to express themselves, and also that they don’t need to express themselves with speech in the ‘typical’ ways expected. They can be creative.

So much of this world focusses on learning to take our place on the ladder of normality. Some do well right up the top, while others struggle with their so called disabilities and barriers right at the bottom of it, trying desperately to not fall off the rungs, still a part of system, just not flourishing in it. Not contributing to it. Or contributing by supporting those who are flourishing in low paid work. When really they have gifts beyond measure to contribute, just by virtue of their unique experience.

Then there are those who go ‘Nahhhh fuck that, I don’t want to be on that shaky ladder, I am going to sink my feet into the earth, wade through the water and play in the mud.’ And in being ourselves and insisting that we don’t need to communicate in these old outdated modes which are supposed to help us climb that ladder, that’s what we do. We sink our feet into the mud. We become more of our true nature. Our wild selves. Which exists freely outside of the normality ladder. And we create a new reality, which is not linear. We communicate outside of speech.

So I have a mixed relationship with speech. I love it. I am a playwright and I love the spoken word so much. I used to want to be an actress and still I love performing. I love working with actors. I love powerful inspiring speakers. I love the power that speech gives us. I totally support anyone to have that power. I love the speech therapists who work so hard to support kids to speak.

And let’s acknowledge it, if you are articulate, you have a lot of power. Whatever your background, you have privilege.

But what in the case of someone who doesn’t have that power? Who never fully is able to navigate the world of speech, both phonetically and with their own capacity for engagement with other humans? Even with the best of speech therapy support.

Speech is only part of the equation when it comes to communication. There has been too much focus on it in my view; debates are central to our political systems, marketing is all about convincing the customer, as is academia and religion and science. It is part of a system which is exclusive.

a black unisex SPEECH shirt with phonetic notation in pink lettering

So much of speech is about CONVINCING others. If you lack that capacity, you fall behind.

Yet, there are other ways to communicate with power.

The arts show us that.

Mystical experiences show us that.






The internet now offers a myriad of ways to create and make a self directed living without speech.

We can become very powerful without speech.

Arguably, more powerful, more connected, more deep.

Do not think that speech is required to be successful in life. It isn’t. It’s a wonderful thing, it is a great power to be harnessed, and important if you want it and have the capacity to harness it. And it is wonderful if you can explore using it in unique ways.

But it’s not the only way.

And as long as we believe it isn’t, then anything is possible. We can create a world which is not a linear ladder, but full of amazing variations and aesthetics.

I would love to know your thoughts

Thank you for reading. If you would like to get updates to my blog or support my work, please subscribe.

And another way you can support, if you like my funky Speech T-shirt design with phonetic alphabet above you can click on the photo, or check out my shop.

xx s

  1. Great post!

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