Wordless Wonder

Summer 2011 #7

I simply will not speak to bus drivers any more, not a word! 

More accurately, I cannot speak to bus drivers any more. Instead, I have a small deck of laminated cards on which I have printed courteous requests for tickets and the stops where I wish to disembark.  For ten days now I have been embarking in mute silence.  It feels eerie, surreal; and I can’t quite believe that I am actually doing it.  I feel like a researcher in a social experiment, launched on an unsuspecting world to discover how people respond to the speech-impaired.  Of my several printed cards, the one that yields the most spectacular response from the public is this one:

"Sorry, my voice is no good"

This brief message is the catalyst for some extraordinary reactions. For example, this week I have met:

The Sergeant Major.  This is the bus driver who helps by SPEAKING IN A LOUD, CLEAR VOICE.   Not only did he raise his voice, but he slowed it down as well; leaning in towards me, with his chops pushed out in a creepy, exaggerated sort of way, presumably to help with my lip-reading.  What is going on here?  It’s my voice sir, not my ears!

The Teacher.  The driver who reads my cards out loud.  Maybe he reads everything out loud?  Maybe he’s speaking for both of us?  Maybe he feels the whole bus should share in the moment?

The Padre.  This bus driver snapped immediately into counsellor mode, going to lengths to reassure me.  “That’s OK, don’t you worry”.  No mate, this is not OK at all! 

The Simpleton.  Then there was the driver who decided that my problems were actually of grammatical origin, and so he helpfully dropped the prepositions from his sentences, as in:  “You go town?”  If one was the type to get offended, one might. 

The Gossip.  Then, and I really liked this one, there was the driver who followed me down the aisle of the bus to find out more.  “Now what have you done to yourself? Where’s your voice gone? Aren’t you going to talk to me today?”  All I could do was smile, shrug, and produce my little card once more.

Marcel Marceau.  There was a member of the public who had some excellent tricks up his sleeve.  I Managed to get hung up (again!) on one of those tricky little ramps from road to footpath.  If they are too steep, and if you hit them too slow, the mid-wheel drive ends up spinning in mid air.  Soon enough a car pulled up and a Gent sprang out with loads of advice and reassurance – until I flashed my card for his benefit. Immediately, immediately, this fellow clammed his mouth shut and began to convey his plans to help me through a combination of mime and some breed of home-cooked sign language that was quite beyond me.  I felt like suggesting he get a little set of cards to help with his speech difficulties. 

The Madonna (with child).  Then there was the clerk at the motor registry.  I had quite a bit to get through, transferring the registration for our new wheelchair vehicle from one state to another, with engineer’s certificates and statutory declarations to be sighted and signed.  For all but a few words I relied on my little cards and on messages typed into my phone, and this seemed to do the trick.  Until we had to go out to the car park to check the engine number.  She held my hand! She held my hand!

What is going on here?  My awkwardness seems contagious; spreading in the way a yawn engulfs a room.  Over the last couple of years I’ve become acclimatised to people’s reaction to disability, and most people are terrific.  But what is it with silence that throws people so out of kilter?  Is it compassion, or embarrassment, or sympathy, or fear, or confusion, or something more fundamental, more archetypal?    My instinct is that speech is so elemental to humanity that its absence is disorienting.  To rob a human of their voice is inhumane.   I think voicelessness is provocative also, drawing out of people an unexpected response that is poignant (if alarming!) in its eagerness to help and its desire to bond. The creation story holds that the Almighty used words alone to make our world; before the self-centredness of man wreaked its havoc, epitomised finally in the Tower of Babel where the unity of culture and language was confused and lost.  Babel comes to mind whenever I board a bus!

It’s early days, but I think the fear of becoming mute is the dread of isolation. And so I feel moved, deeply touched, by the members of the human family on the busses and around my town who reach out to prevent that from happening.  Inept and inappropriate perhaps, but I feel the love!  And I am grateful.


27 thoughts on “Wordless Wonder

  1. Ben

    Geez, Rod — now I’m speechless! Want to say something, but don’t know what. I’m pretty annoyed. Want to punch your illness in face and tell it to rack off.

  2. fiona2107

    Oh Rod,
    I’m so sorry that you were treated like that but in awe of your ability to look past offense and see the humour in it all!

    I really enjoyed reading this post. You captured the different groups of people perfectly.

    I’m amazed at the number of people who start talking to my son like he’s an idiot and a simpleton when the “a” word is mentioned!

    Or the people that start to yell at me upon learning that I am totally deaf in one ear! Um…yeah, but the other one is still fine!!!!


  3. Ann

    Oh, good blog, Roderick.

    I really love your humor as you describe your categories of responses. I know that your gratitude over rides all the weirdness. To be ignored would of course, be awful. Speech is so basic to who we are!

  4. Milton

    Hi Rod
    Very frustrating but extremely enlightening to hear of the different responses , but also containing your humour . I know it must be difficult but the end rewards will be fantastic . Maybe print the cards in RED .

  5. Tim Griffiths

    Hi Mate,
    Rod that was a briliant insight for me. You should try and get that published somewhere.
    Mate, im feeling for ya but please dont stop communicating. You have to much gold inside ya. The world needs to hear it.

  6. Yes, it happens doesnt it Fiona? We experience all sorts of results with our little girl as well, but she is pretty assertive and quickly sorts people out. I really think most of the ‘unfortunate’ responses still spring from a well-meaning heart. It just throws is all into a difficult area that we are ill-equipped to deal with. Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Fiona,
    You’re a blogger, so tell me: does the reply I type here on your comment end up going to you as an email, or would you have to visit my page again to see it? Ive always wondered what happens.

  8. fiona2107

    Well actually, there are two ways that this works.

    Firstly, the person who is commenting can tick the box underneath the comment box that says ” Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”

    And they automatically receive notification that way.

    Or if it’s another wordpress blogger that’s commented, (like in my case for instance) I found out by going to my dashboard and under the section that says “my comments” it gives a list of all the comments you’ve left on other wordpress blog posts and the follow up replies 🙂

    I check this regularly, it’s easier than remembering to tick the box 🙂

  9. Krinna

    Hi Rod,

    You are so right–this is not ok at all, it sucks! But you do still have a voice, and a powerful, perceptive one at that. It just happens to be in text, not auditory. I am in awe of your ability to share so much of what is going on in you life.

  10. Thank you Krinna, and you know I am so grateful for that; and for the technology that we have so freely available which means I can reply to you from the middle of a beautifully timbered park on my way home from our office; and I’m grateful to all the people who listen – not with their ears but with their eyes! There is a wonder to it when I stand back and look.

  11. Hi Rod,
    A friend of mine, recently diagnosed with ALS, shared your blog with me. I find your writing inspired, your questions inviting. Why does silence throw people off Kilter? Perhaps part of it, in addition to your thoughts, is that we are so used to vocal noise…the human voice shouting, singing (or yelling) lyrics into our earbuds, the ever present din of so much interrupting, chattering, and giggling. Someone who isn’t doing any of those things–well, maybe we have to pay closer attention.

    I hope you continue to write about your experiences. Thank you!

  12. Dawn Clay Obst

    Rod, I loved this blog and read it to a few of my colleagues – who wanted copies. so then i emaled it to a few more- and they turned up at my office door in tears- saying what a gift you have with words- they were really touched as was I- and it brought such a wealth of reactions- tears from one who nursed her father with throat cancer she wished his nurses had seen it, perhaps they would have had more empathy. I think you have created a wonderful tool for counsellors and welfare workers.
    Please keep writing. Is it ok if I put the link on facebook onmy wall? love Dawn .

  13. Thank you Fran for your thoughts about the noisy world. Is your friend is doing OK? I certainly hope to keep writing – it’s a good way of thinking out loud, with an audience to keep the thinking honest.
    Warm regards,

  14. Hello Dawn!
    Pass the link on by all means of course Dawn. I am sometimes amazed by the places my blog ends up, and I like that. I am touched that your colleagues found my story touching – it’s just the real world though isn’t it?
    Good to hear from you,

  15. Bob


    Please get someone to investigate the mental illness you may have as it seems to be effecting your common sense.
    For someone to carry out such a low act as this is beyond me.
    “Social Experiment” you call it!

    What the?

    Wake up to yourself Rod! Please invest your time in trying to assist those less fortunate than you, because it would be obvious to me that you think that there is no one in that position.

    They do exist and some do not even have the ability to be mobile.

    A christian as great as you are judging others, that’s a bit to rich in my book.

    You should be nothing but ashamed of yourself at the very least.

    I also have a disabilty, but I would never do that to anyone else.

    If your looking for attention then please go buy a dog.

    May the peace be with you.

  16. Hey Bob,
    I can’t help feeling you missunderstand my intentions. This was certainly not a Social Experiment; it’s the only way I go out in public right now. ‘Social Experiment’ is just a figure of speach, a way of describing the sureal experience of having to attempt to communicate this way.

    I certainly understand that there are many, many in worse straits than mine; and it is not my intention to offend you, or anyone else.
    I wish you well Bob.

  17. Debbie

    Ohhh Rod I can not see how Bob misunderstood your remarks so much!! I am speechless after reading your blog because of your humility, love & grace you have shown. I guess even Jesus & Paul (many other men& women of God) were misunderstood also!

  18. I laughed out loud in the cafe at this one (after crying last night at your latest blog) and shared your blog with a few more people.
    I happen to love your outlook on life.. and the ‘bob’s’ responses.. us humans are a funny bunch

    As always love reading your reflections. So sorry this is your journey but love your response to it and listening to your lessons.

  19. Katrina, thank you! And thanks for passing it round! Its an unexpected joy in having a blog: as one avenue of communication has rather lessened there is still this whole world of people to share with, and sometimes ‘meet’ and interract with.

  20. Carol

    Rod, I read your blog and also wonder why people act the way they do; I think they are unprepared and that most people only want to be helpful. As a disability support worker of 12 years and my own mother’s full time carer for eight years, I am always amazed and sometimes dismayed at people’s reactions to other people who just happen to have a disability (or should that be people with differing abilities?). Your observations are very interesting, especially when we are told that something like 97% of all communication is non-verbal. People just need to be observant and patient, and respectful!. Why do people, when they meet someone who uses a wheelchair to get around, feel the need to yell at them like they are deaf, speak s-l-o-w-l-y like they are stupid, or use baby talk like they are two years old? Why do they overlook the person on the chair and direct questions to the support worker? Why do they stand in front of the chair like the person is not there or is not interested in watching the game? I wish I had your patience and sense of humour in these situations.


  21. Hello Carol,
    Well, I think I have had all those things happen, except the last. I’m no sport’s fan. Like you, I think that at heart most folks are wanting to be helpful. Just why people raise their voice for a wheel chair is a mystery to me; but it has happened so often that it must be a universal aspect of humanity! I do feel for the people who have to figure out in an instant how to deal with me: Wheelchair, no speech … it doesnt surprise me if they jump automatically to the conclusion that I have brain damage or something like that. It’s hard to bear sometimes, but good humour helps. Thanks for your comment!

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