This voice of mine
On finding peace with a speech impediment
Hello, happy Monday.
(I’m briefly changing up the schedule this week as I’m off tomorrow. Normal service will resume next week.)
If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen that I was interviewed by some friends for this video a few weeks ago. It’s all about the intersection of disability and womanhood, so if you’re reading this newsletter, I reckon you’ll find it interesting. A lot of work went into it, so I hope you’ll give it a watch. I’ve even pasted it here for you, isn’t that nice?
While there is a lot more to say on the content of the interview, today I want to talk about making it.
I can talk about ableism and how it’s all society’s fault until the cows come home, but for years I carried around this shameful truth: I hated my voice. Hated it so much, in fact, that when I recorded a video for a university friend, I never actually watched it (sorry, Becky). On bad days, I turned down radio interviews and speaking opportunities and hid. On good days, I could trick my brain into allowing me to speak up by entirely separating myself from what I was doing. Broadly, I was fine so long as I wasn’t being recorded. If I didn’t have to hear it played back, I could just about pretend my voice was fine, whatever that meant, and I had enough good days that I slowly became comfortable with public speaking. But still, I never, ever listened to my own voice.
At the BBC, I spent a lot of energy avoiding going on air, which was tricky because it is literally the British Broadcasting Corporation. Hmm. Anyway. I ended up at Newsnight, and despite my absolute best efforts to convince a TV show they needed an online writer (let’s choose, here, to admire my undying commitment to the written word and ignore the absurdity), it became clear that if I wanted to tell the stories I wanted to tell I was going to have to face a camera. I sucked it up and got a commission. And what followed was the worst six weeks of my working life.
I hated filming. The camera would roll and a wave of self-consciousness would rise in my chest. I couldn’t remember my lines. I tripped over words. I was hyper-aware of my inability to keep still. I recorded and re-recorded. And then I went into the edit, heard my voice for the first time in - what? - 10 years, and went to the loo to have a little cry. To me, I still sounded as bad as I had feared. (The piece, incidentally, worked out quite well and is still horrifyingly relevant. You can watch it here.)
Before we move on to the obligatory story of how I went from crying in the Newsnight loos to voluntarily appearing on a YouTube channel (quite the character development arc, I’m sure you'll agree), let’s look at where this hatred came from. There must have been a reason why I wasn't bothered about my wiggly feet but was very bothered by my wobbly voice. And it's not hard to see what that reason was: other people.
Yes, people often make split second judgements about my wheelchair or my legs. But actually often people are quite willing to overlook all that, until I start speaking. I open my mouth and this look - somewhere between horror and panic - materialises on their faces. Their eyes go to whoever is with me, looking for a clue as to what to do. Often, they just stop listening, deciding before they've tried that I am beyond comprehension. It’s hard when you're young not to internalise the message that there is something wrong with your voice when it causes people to physically recoil. It acted as this concrete wall between me and what I wanted most: to fit in.
If that wasn't enough, there were other things going on. As a child, the only time I ever heard someone who sounded like me was during the Paralympics, once every four years. We weren't on the news or on kids’ TV or on Top of the Pops. We weren't anywhere. Even as I grew up and met other disabled people, they always (at least in my head) sounded clearer than me. I felt like my voice marked me out as more different, even with the people I had most in common with. I truly believed (and a part of me still does) that my voice was going to be the thing that held me back. (Shout-out here to the guy from Hinge who was 'absolutely fine’ with my disability until he found my Newsnight film, heard my speech, asked me a weird question about it and then disappeared. Thanks, pal.)
Anyway, the point is I hated my voice because society had primed me to. I realised this when I met someone who actually did sound a little like me and I wasn't bothered by their voice at all (duh!), forcing me to ask myself why I was applying someone else's standards to myself. Those of you who read the early issues of this newsletter may be sensing a common theme. And, in true Lucy fashion, when I realised that society was to blame, I set out to prove society wrong. If people thought my voice was weird, I was just going to talk at them until they (and I) got over it. Yes, damn it, I will come on your podcast.
I realise this isn’t the first time I’ve addressed my speech in this newsletter. It came up in the issue on why I love to write. But this is the first time I’ve really addressed the emotions around it. This is mostly because in my heart of hearts I knew that it represented some serious internalised ableism and I was ashamed that it bothered me at all. Now I understand that this, too, was probably not my fault.
Which brings us to the above YouTube video. Her-o! happens to be run by two good friends of mine, so I was more than happy to oblige when they asked me to chat about my favourite topic. I was prepared for the familiar surge of anxiety when they pressed record, but it didn't come. Partly, that was because of how well I know Ania and Justyna, and partly it was because I could speak freely and not second guess myself. But mostly it's because I don't care anymore; I have liberated myself from the norms imposed upon me and now I'm determined to be out there, my wiggly wobbly voice and all.
And do you know what I thought when I first saw the Her-o! edit? Lucy, you sound just fine.
See you next week,
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Links of the week
It’s been a bumper week of things to read. Here’s what I’ve enjoyed:
Andrew Rawnsley in yesterday’s Observer on how the conversion of the Conservative Party into the cult of Boris is doomed to eventually fail
Please read Sophie Butler’s fab Instagram slides about disability and mental health. I sometimes worry she is actually inside my head
If you somehow haven’t read ‘Who is the bad art friend?’ yet, you are in for a treat. Everyone involved is terrible, the piece is great. The last line is truly a work of art