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Having a voice is about more than talking

How do we go about finding a voice?
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Lessons from laryngitis

I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening a couple of weeks ago sitting in on an ESL class in Outlook. The number of languages represented was quite amazing and I had just the briefest of insight into what brought such a diverse group from around the world to small town Saskatchewan. As I watched students interact during a coffee break I was reminded of a similar international setting I was in four years ago in Constanta, Romania.

I was on a mission trip to the eastern European city located in the Dobruja region on the Black Sea and during my time there I was in a lot of different venues, but one of my favorites was a place called The International Café.

It was a fun space with cool lighting and art, and benches and chairs that could be easily rearranged to reflect how the room would be used. The space wasn't overly large but served as a multipurpose setting for everything from meetings, to worship, to a dining room, to a classroom. I loved being there because at any given event I was surrounded by people from Romania, Netherlands, South Korea, Brazil, Scotland, Syria, Germany, England and the United States.

Several evening classes were offered as part of community outreach and I sat in on three language classes; one in Portuguese and two in Korean. I marveled at those around me eager to add to their fluency in other languages, including English, so they could be part of the community that spoke those languages. They wanted to understand and be understood. They wanted a voice.

I believe one of the most over-used phrases in the past decade is exclaiming someone has "found their voice." One analyst remarked it was used in 19 different instances by major media outlets to describe moments in Hillary Clinton campaign events back in the day. Can you really find your voice 19 different times? What happens in the interim that would cause a need to continually re-find it?

It’s certainly true there are times when people are unable to express what needs to be said whether for lack of opportunity, lack of language, or sadly, inability or unwillingness of others to listen.

One summer during my time in university I worked with adults with intellectual disabilities. One woman I met grew up on the family farm and worked alongside her mother in their home. She loved cooking and cleaning, and just generally helping care for people. When her parents passed away she was moved into a group home. She was non-verbal and so the transition wasn’t easy. She could hear, but not respond in a way to make herself understood by most. However, if you took the time to sit with her and talk to her, she found ways of communicating. Using different facial gestures, she would answer questions and engage in conversation in the way she was able. It saddened me that so few would share in this dialogue with her, not because they couldn't, but because they wouldn't.

In a rather ironic twist, the morning after I attended the ESL class I lost my voice. An infection set in and robbed me of my ability to vocalize. For several days I remained silent or tried to squeak out what was needed. It is frustrating when you want to share something and you can't make yourself heard.

I thought back to times I have spent with people who speak languages other than the one I speak, or with those who have difficulty vocalizing. Did I take the time to try and communicate? Did I make an effort to truly engage? Or in my impatience or discomfort did I rush an interaction, or worse yet, avoid it all together. The effort we put into something is a function of the value we place on it.

I know several people who make this look effortless, but there's no magic to what they are doing. They are patient, gentle and kind. And yet isn't this how we should be talking to everyone anyway?

Whether it is a newcomer learning the language, someone who has challenges vocalizing, or those whose health or memory is limiting their ability to converse, it is important to let everyone know we want them to communicate but more importantly, that they will be heard.

What we are doing is working together to give everyone a voice. It starts with patience and providing each of us a chance to speak in the manner we are able, followed by the rest demonstrating a willingness to ensure all are heard. It's not so much about finding a voice as it is finding a listener. That's my outlook.