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The Freedom in Freedom of Speech

Glenda Watson Hyatt and Lorelle VanFossen 2009 Vancouver, BCBefore and after WordCamp Whistler 2009 in Whistler, BC, Canada, I took advantage of the good graces and lovely home of Glenda Watson Hyatt of Do It Myself Blog (@GlendaWH) and her husband, Darrell Hyatt of Enabling Abilities to Appear in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Spending time with Glenda and Darrell is filled with laughter and fun, as well as an education. It is also a deeply intense learning experience for all of us. Glenda has coined our visit as WordCamp Hyatt.

As many of you know, Glenda suffers from Cerebral Palsy which leaves her tiny body slightly twisted, communicating with a strong speech impediment. She was labeled “non-verbal” a long time ago, a label her family and friends dispute. Within a few minutes I was able to learn Glenda-ish, her name for her personal language and enunciation, though at first the failure to understand sent us to the computer for her to type out the words to help me understand. Her husband also helps translates, but within a short time, our dependence upon him and the computer shrank.

Our time together reminded me of my own struggles to communicate.

The Freedom in Freedom of Speech

As a child, I was hit by a truck while crossing the street to the awaiting school bus. The traumatic brain injuries left me with some learning disabilities and speech impediments that I struggled for years to overcome, hiding them from the world. In the privacy of my childhood bedroom, I practiced enunciating, struggling to conquer hard consonants, determined to find a way to talk to people without stumbling.

Later, when I moved to Israel, I found myself surrounded by languages I didn’t understand, bringing back those childhood fears of humiliation and the inability to communicate. I felt so inadequate and insecure because I just couldn’t talk to people.

Hebrew and Russian speakers surrounded me, speaking only a few words of English, if any. I’d go into a store for groceries and struggle desperately to explain the difference between sliced or shredded cheese. At first, I’d end up walking away with the opposite of what I thought I was describing, embarrassed I couldn’t explain the simple difference between sliced and shredded cheese or buying a simple bed sheet. Once I learned the correct mime hand motions for buying cheese (slicing one hand onto the other in a chopping motion and dragging the finger downward in a clawing motion for shredded), my success ratio improved until my speech abilities caught up.

I’d walk up to the check out counter, envious of the customer’s ability to chat with others standing in line, babbling about the weather, politics, news, and state of food prices. Eager to not frustrate the clerk and make my check out experience faster, I’d memorized all the possible questions they could ask me as I checked out such as “Paper or plastic,” “cash, debit, or credit card,” “how do you want to pay,” and “do you need help carrying this out.” If they deviated from these, I was lost, helpless to understand what they were asking, without the words to answer even if I understood what they were saying.

Candies at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, photograph copyright Lorelle VanFossenI threw myself hard into learning Hebrew, impatient at myself and my teachers’ inability to get past the most basic of language skills. I was learning the alphabet and formulate the structure of a sentence, not the important conversational elements I needed to survive. The alphabet doesn’t help you much when you can’t spell or know the words to spell when it comes to shopping. I needed to learn how to find and buy food, stamps, clothing, and pay my bills in a language I desperately needed to make my own, and it was just taking too long. Life was passing me by while I struggled to just ask “How much is this?”

Elite Chocolates in Hebrew and English in Israel - photograph copyright Lorelle VanFossenWhen I started teaching English to locals, I made a point to teach the basic language of survival first. Sentence structure and alphabets could wait. It was more important for them to know how to respond to “How are you?” and know how to buy bread and cheese than spell them.

After a year and a half in Israel, we returned for a short visit to the United States. In a grocery store, I was staggered at the tons of useless conversation between the clerk and the customers in my line, as well as with each other.

“Do you believe this weather?”

“I can’t remember the last time it was so hot.”

“Might have been about 10 years ago, if memory serves me right. It was a hot one back then.”

“Oh, I remember that. My air conditioner gave out three times that summer.”

“My Harry has fixed ours twice in the past month. Don’t want to live without it.”

“Can’t wait for the temperature to drop.”

“Heard it should be cooler by the weekend.”

“You think? That would be nice. It’s just too hot to do anything.”

“Except get groceries!” Polite laughter.

“Got to feed the kids, you know.”

Drivel. Complete time wasting social drivel. Yet, they were using words to connect and establish a temporary relationship with a stranger. Their common experience bonded them within this empty conversation. They might not meet again in their lifetimes, but for a moment, they shared a connection through this useless conversation.

I wanted the same words in Hebrew and Russian. I wanted to talk to the Russian woman I ran into all the time at the corner grocery store who wore beautifully handmade knitted sweaters. I wanted to ask her if she knitted them herself and maybe even ask her to show me how. I wanted to say more than hello and thank you in Russian.

I wanted to talk to my two delightful fruit stand workers and share in the jokes they had with other customers, filling the tiny shop with laughter, while I stood next to them, smiling like I understood, yet disconnected and alone, not able to get the joke.

Standing in the middle of a crowd, I felt alone. Isolated. Unable to get the joke. Unable to express my wishes. Unable to ask a single question. Unable to even do more than smile and nod and hope I was agreeing to something I really wanted.

I thought of all the times I longed for such a conversation with anyone in my new country, and felt sick inside. Envious. I wanted to waste words like that in another language. I wanted to chat up strangers while standing in line. I wanted to ask the check out clerk about her day. I wanted to relax into nonsense, time wasting babble, but I didn’t have the words. The women in the store were wasting their English with nonsense discussions – I wanted the words.

I was angry. I wanted the freedom of expression they had. They didn’t know how lucky they were to have the words when so many like me are x-pats or immigrants living in a world where they just don’t have the words.

When You Don’t Have the Words

As writers and bloggers, we are often without the words to express our thoughts and opinions. This isn’t just a foreign language issue or a disability. We all reach that point in the writing process where we suffer from the “brain fart” – our brain’s temporary freeze along the thought process. We know what we wanted to say, but the words disappear out of our heads. It takes some mental games to get back on track, but eventually we find the words.

Struggling to fit whole thoughts into 140 characters is tough, but what about when you just don’t have the words, nor the ability to express yourself?

Sometimes it’s hard to put our thoughts into words. I will simmer a blog post in my head for days, sometimes months, trying to find an interesting way to convey my message. Sometimes we don’t have the words because we lack the language of the subject.

There are so many things I can write about, but many topics I can’t for I lack the language. I envy the writing of Ed Morita in Baker’s Hours and his incredible ability to write about food and his passion for cooking. I’ve asked him repeatedly to write a blog post that explains the jargon and etymology of food writing and reviewing. It’s a completely foreign language to me, even though he writes in a language I understand.

I envy the ability of to communicate with metaphors, visual and verbal. Her blog posts are poetry in business communication, helping to get the ideas across with grace, style, and a form of poetry in phrasing and expression. I wish I could write like that.

Don’t ask me to review television shows or movies. I’m terrible. I just don’t speak the language. I can write product reviews, though, as I do speak that language.

I don’t write fiction, other than my one attempt at a fictional essay, for the same reason. I’ll read it, praise it, and rejoice in the experience, but I write fact not fiction. I don’t have the skill set.

We all have our own special way with words, mixing and combining metaphors and similes to communicate our message. Even me, with my funny hand motions for cheese sign language, trying any method I could to connect with anyone, moving beyond the restrictions of language.

My Dream of a Language Barrier Free World

My soap box over the past year has been to push for built-in translation abilities in web browsers. I want to visit any web page in the world and have it instantly readable to me, no matter what the original author’s language is. I want to read what Boris in St. Petersburg, Russia, is doing, and Ernesto in Brazil, and Yin Sing in Japan. I want to know their thoughts on how they live and work, and their opinions on the world around them. I want to get to know them, breaking down the cultural barriers as well as the language barriers.

Sitting here next to Glenda, I’m reminded of that dream. Blogging gave her the freedom to express herself that her body would not permit, opening up a huge world of interaction, relationships, and communication she never dreamed was possible. She now chats regularly with people all over the world through Twitter and her blog. She regularly chats with people in Australia, China, and Chile, worlds away from her Surrey, British Columbia, village.

The web breaks down her language barriers, as well as her geographic restrictions. While she is starting to travel farther and wider in her scooter, as more and more communities become accessible and open to the disabled, she travels furthest on the web, unrestricted by her speech impediment.

In the video she did on How WordPress Changed Her Life, Glenda spoke about sitting in a crowded conference where she was ignored.

At one conference, I was sitting in a room with four or five hundred people and I had this intense feeling of being very alone. No one knew me. No one reached out to me. And, because of my speech, I couldn’t effectively introduce myself. Ironically, the conference was about disability management and hiring people with disabilities and I was looking for a job.

Of all demographics, she was surrounded by people who know better, and she couldn’t communicate.

I so empathize with her. Standing in a city filled with people I desperately wanted to communicate with, filled with frustration, then standing in a store surrounded by people speaking in my own language who wasted words not understanding how precious they are – I felt closer to Glenda.

As you communicate through all the various social media tools out there, think about the words you are adding to the universe. Are you wasting words?

What are you doing to reach out to those who can’t communicate? To those who wish someone would reach through the barriers when they don’t have the words.

Glenda and I shared our self-revelations in communication during our WordCamp Hyatt, and she shares her perspective on her struggles to communicate in Going Beyond Social Media to Connect Deeply much more eloquently than I.



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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, the author of Blogging Tips, What Bloggers Won't Tell You About Blogging.

23 Comments

  1. Posted January 27, 2009 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I have been thinking about the both of you all day today after following a tweet here yesterday, and viewing Glenda’s video…I just kept thinking and agreeing about the voices we find or even become because of our blogs. Lorelle you astound me with your expression, always have. Glenda I met you the one and only time I was ever at Live Mic night over at Liz Strauss’s blog right before SobCon last year. I work Tuesday nights typically – anyway, everyone was so welcoming to me that night! I have been following and humbled by your story ever since.

  2. Posted January 27, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Lorelle, thank you for this tender post on language, expression, and acceptance. Normally a lurker, I feel like I should respond.

    After living in Argentina and Chile and learning to speak Spanish at what feels like a snail-like pace, I understand your sentiments on connecting with others even in the most mundane of ways. It’s easy to feel like a little island walking around, especially when listeners harden their ears to foreign accents.

    We all want to be heard, even if we aren’t pronouncing vocabulary perfectly or using the most eloquent words. The great thing about blogging is that we have plenty of time to tinker and refine our work in order to present the very person we want to convey.

    Lorelle, I must ask though: are any words wasted?

  3. jennifer
    Posted January 27, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Lorelle, i just want to echo what other’s have been saying …. thank you for your honest and willingness to be blog authentic. I can certainly relate to big roadblocks in being able to find my voice in so many ways. I love how blogging is about process, overcoming fears, uncovering how we really feel and that we allow ourself to do it at all.

    thanks.

  4. Posted January 28, 2009 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    Wow, what an amazing post, both amazing posts! Can so identify with the frustration and the struggle to overcome effectively being illiterate in a language other than your own.

    As far as breaking down the language barriers, Twitrans. :)

  5. Posted January 28, 2009 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful post!! The whole post was about ‘you wish you could’ and you were doing it right then. You were writing from your heart and doing it so eloquently.

    Beautifully written,

    E

  6. Posted January 28, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Great, heart-felt post! I hope to meet Glenda some day too.

  7. Vancouver
    Posted January 28, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Great post and thanks again for sharing. I missed WordCamp but hope to catch you in the future!

  8. Posted January 28, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I hope to someday learn Glenda-ish!

  9. Posted January 28, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Lorelle,

    I want you think to think of this (also anyone else who reads it): Could the barriers people face in speech, could they be the actual speech in itself?

    My best friend’s father who passed away 3 years ago. He couldn’t communicate the “normal” way through speech, he used non-verbal communication. Something happened to his life health wise. That man was the most intelligent and wise man that I have ever met in my life. When he passed away it was a great loss for me as well.

    I hate the word “disability”, Look at Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles: They both have/had visual disabilities. Look at what they both have done with their lives. They overcame the fact that they couldn’t see.
    One of the assistants at work. I risked my job when she was going to be let go/fired. Not only was it difficult to learn sign language (I am close to 30 and learning a new method of communication is not the easiest).

    Disabled/Disability is just a label that “normal” people use because someone who is assigned that label can’t communicate/do something as certain way.

    There are 5 people at my work that have wheelchairs because they are not able to walk the “normal” way due to different reasons. They are fine doing their work. I got the building fully accessible where I work and roughly 55%-60% have some kind of disability. One of the other assistants didn’t speak english as well, she spoke Cantonese. I gave her a solution: she helps me out with my Cantonese and I help her out with her English.

    No matter what “imperfection” you might have, you can still accomplish things and if it takes you a bit more time to do it then that shouldn’t be held against you.

    A 4 year old child can be said he/she is “disabled”, there are thousands of things a 4 year old child can do and it doesn’t have a label. Yet when an adult needs more time to do it because his/her brain is wired differently then the negative label of “disability” gets used.

    My neighbour is a “vegetable”, I view it as her body is not “operational” but I know she is in there somewhere, I visit her almost every day. She can blink, she can kind of squeeze my hand. I know me visiting her puts a smile on her face.

    When are we going to treat each other like human beings? So some people can’t see/walk/speak, so? That doesn’t change who they are.
    If I were to go blind, will I cease to be Miroslav Glavic? NO!.

    I think technology like WordPress can help people who are “disabled” to communicate better with the world.

    Could the people who don’t have a “disability” be the “disabled” one? because they can’t communicate with “disabled” people? Are any of you the “disabled” ones because you can’t communicate with my neighbour?

    I find myself lucky and I think I should learn to communicate in other ways more.

    I have a few authographed hockey jerseys, they were my heroes when I was young.
    I consider any people who have some “disability” and didn’t let that “disability” get in their way of their life to be another hero. Glenda Watson is one of those people in my list of Heroes.

  10. Francesca
    Posted January 29, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Lorelle,

    What a beautiful post. As someone who loves to travel (and travels) and discover how people live in the countries I visit, I know a lot about the embarrassment caused by one’s not understanding what people you meet are saying. And as a language learner, I know the problems of learning a foreign language. Actually, I ended up becoming a translator, thus professionally helping people to understand one another.

    If I dream of built-in translation abilities in web browsers? No, sorry.You need a human translator to convey the fullness of meaning of a texts. Automatic/machine translations are all too often inaccurate and sometimes utterly ridiculous, as they pick words and translate them into another language disregarding the basic grammar rules of the target language and ignore idioms.

  11. Posted January 29, 2009 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Lorelle,

    This is a beautiful post. I am lucky in that I have met Glenda in real life, and I have also been able to communicate with her on Twitter. She is amazing, inspiring and stronger than many of us! Your work and Glenda’s is inspiring!

  12. katie1991
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

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    Posted January 30, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

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    Posted January 30, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

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    Posted January 30, 2009 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

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    Posted January 30, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

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  23. Posted February 4, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    That was a great post Lorelle! Thanks for sharing your story and linking to Glenda’s. Interesting that even you have had trouble communicating. You are one of the best communicators I have seen.

    I love this:
    “Drivel. Complete time wasting social drivel. Yet, they were using words to connect and establish a temporary relationship with a stranger. Their common experience bonded them within this empty conversation. They might not meet again in their lifetimes, but for a moment, they shared a connection through this useless conversation.”
    One of the few explanations of small talk that has made sense to me.

    Your story of language and other communication barriers is familiar to me because I am autistic and have also worked very hard to find ways around that kind of thing. Blogging has changed my life similarly to Glenda’s. I can not always communicate verbally, but for some reason, the words that get too jumbled in my head to speak out loud, transform into clear sentences when I write.

    Glenda said that WordPress has given her a voice. I think that is an amazing wonderful thing. It does the same for me. Very glad you share your voice with it too.


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  1. [...] First saw Glenda on Lorelle’s blog. Glenda Watson Hyatt’s site – Do It Myself [...]

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