Some disabilities are obvious to others. However, some people look physically perfect, but have deep invisible limitations. Over time they have successfully avoided confronting certain speech situations at work. Still waters run deep. They have to do mental gymnastics to avoid specific sounds or words. Lurking beneath their cool image is a pocket stuffed deeply with old hurts, then, one day this pocket erupts.
Maybe it hits when their kids leave the nest. Maybe at menopause the usual coping strategies stop working. They have become successful using their natural talents, and although they are well qualified, they feel frightened to apply for a promotion. Perhaps a re-organization has turned their comfortable job into a position for which they never interviewed. They have stayed in the same spot, but their work no longer fits their talents.
I refer to this collection of symptoms as “hidden speech disabilities.” One summer, in my practice as a speech coach, I noticed similar subtle patterns of speech difficulties in five different businesswomen. Some women had mild symptoms and others’ symptoms were more severe. Women who exhibit hidden speech disabilities are competent employees, but they have deep-seated speech conflicts even though they seem fine to others.
Telltale Grammar Hints
Poor grammar is often the telltale sign or presenting issue. Phrases such as, “She ain’t got none,” may slip out during business meetings. These kinds of comments may cause co-workers to cringe.
I have noticed there are equal numbers of Caucasian and African-American women in this group. Employees who exhibit these covert speech symptoms may not be able to automatically code switch, or change from home dialect to work dialect. However, not all speakers of non-standard English demonstrate this cluster of symptoms.
As little girls, women with hidden speech disabilities had mild speech sound sequencing problems known as apraxia. Sometimes a parent had similar issues.
At times, they exhibited mild dyslexia, missing word endings (train/training) or misreading similar looking words (truck/trunk). They struggled to pronounce final consonant clusters (e.g. /kst/ as in asked). In grade school, other children maliciously teased them.
Even as adults, they continue to have fears of reading aloud and words like spaghetti or aluminum continue to be tongue twisters. They transpose sounds. They might say “evelator” instead of elevator or “Put the tar in the carage.”
Because they were well-behaved pupils, their teachers liked them and passed them, even if they did borderline work. As adults, who appear outwardly social with friends, their childhood fears persist. They may be extremely quiet around new people and worry about being “found out.”
Safe Work, Putting Others First
Along with this mild sound-sequencing problem, these women exhibit a strong need for tactile learning or learning by touch. They often went back to high school to finish their GED after becoming a single mom or a very young wife. Their growing families became the center of their lives. When their youngest child entered school, their ticket to limited success was an entry level position requiring only a high school education. They stayed in that position for many years, becoming loyal and dependable employees, who knew the job inside out. Never taking the risk to post for a super-visor’s position, they secretly avoided getting into speaking situations they could not handle.
Fast forward 20 years to a situation where their children are grown or they are suddenly independent due to a divorce. After years of putting others first, it is now time for them. They ask themselves what is missing in their careers. The answer is confidence in communication and guidance in tackling those mouthfuls of long words.
Hidden Speech Disability Symptoms (in a nutshell)
1. Difficulty with long words.
2. Occasional letter reversals in reading or speech.
2. Avoidance of words, sounds or people.
4. Appearing outwardly friendly, but inwardly struggling.
5. Difficulty code switching from rural grammar or African-American English to Standard English.
6. Fear of leaving a safe position at work.
How Does this Affect Employees’ Behavior at Work?
1. They have fears of taking even small risks.
2. They avoid conversations with important people, especially supervisors.
2. They lack confidence to apply for positions that require more verbal communication.
4. They are frustrated when colleagues with less experience and fewer skills move up in the company.
5. They are overly critical of their own mistakes.
What is the Treatment for Hidden Speech Disabilities?
1. Intensive sound sequencing speech therapy.
2. Intensive patterned grammar training, both verbal and written.
3. Code switching awareness, considering different audiences.
4. Examining the relevance of old fears.
5. Building confidence.
Perhaps you or someone you know feels ready to gather the courage to conquer those old speech fears. If so, a qualified speech pathologist, who understands both the workplace and speech issues, can help. Still waters may run deep but positive change, with the right support, can allow careers to flow and flourish.