Hello Nicole - November 2001

Dear Nicole,

I am alone most of the time. I have low self-esteem, and I’m shy in public. Also, I’m afraid to speak much because my speech is slurred, and some people can’t understand me . It makes me depressed and I don’t know what to do. I like to meet people on the Internet but I don’t like to tell them about my disability. When they want to talk on the phone, the relationship usually ends.

Sincerely,

Alone

Dear Alone,

It is really understandable that your difficulty communicating with others would lead to feelings of depression and frustration. Humans are very socially-oriented and all of us need companionship and love in order to feel happy. I certainly don’t have any simple answers, but I will present some ideas you might consider.

First, I urge you to carefully and objectively examine your speech. Is your main barrier that you are truly difficult to understand, or is your main barrier shame over speech that is only somewhat difficult to understand? I think it’s important to remember that we are our own worst critics. Often we think that others are judging us, but usually our feelings of being judged are way out of proportion to what other people actually think and feel about us. A very normal response to this feeling of being judged is to want to hide our source of shame, but the more we hide our “defects” the more we believe we must hide them in order to be seen as acceptable. When our source of shame is our speaking ability, hiding it can lead to devastating isolation.

Likewise, lowered self-esteem is very common for anyone with a disability, especially when we feel isolated. It makes sense that we have trouble accepting our worthiness and adequacy since we have always been some of the most devalued and outcast members of society. I think it would be great if you could find a support group or sincere counselor to talk to. I think this would help, not only because it sounds like you need a person to share your challenges with, but because talking might help give you some encouragement by validating your ability to communicate.

Also, it may help to get together with other people who have communication disabilities and learn how others cope with these issues. There is a group in the Twin Cities called Help Yourself, Inc. (651-646-3662) that specializes in communication disabilities. Their monthly meetings are open to the public and focus on helping members find ways to communicate, whether that means acquiring assistive communication devices, or building confidence through various methods. Help Yourself is a very social group and members share their experiences of having a communication disability. I think that hearing their stories may help you feel less alone.

The Internet has become a popular way for people with disabilities to circumvent many social barriers. However, building a friendship over the Internet can be problematic because it allows us to hide important aspects of ourselves.

While it’s not necessary to tell everyone about your disability, for a friendship to have a better chance of moving from virtual reality to real life, you should help people understand your disability before they encounter it. By using cyberspace to communicate, you can slowly and gradually introduce your disability and allow others to become familiar with it. So much of the aversion to disability is based on fear of the unknown, that simply talking about it and answering questions does a lot to ease people’s minds and would probably help your friends feel more comfortable communicating with you on the telephone.

No matter how serious a communication disability is, we all have the ability to communicate if we allow ourselves to find our own way. I know people with minor speaking disabilities who rarely say a word because they are ashamed and think no one wants to take the time to understand them. On the other hand, I know people with very significant speaking disabilities who are comfortable with their disabilities and spend half the day talking on the phone! A large part of living with a disability is learning how to be OK with our differences so that we can allow ourselves to be ourselves without shame. If we can be OK with our own way of doing things, we can live our lives fully “imperfections” and all.

Nicole