Friday, March 27, 2009

You’re Fine, Thanks. How Am I ?

While losing my speech, I’ve noticed a strange reaction among people I talk with. I didn’t put quotes around the word “talk” here, because I carry a text-to-speech device with me, so I actually do participate in conversations out loud by voice, albeit slowly because I have to type my answers, and albeit not in my own voice. Still, it’s a voice.

A fine example of this reaction, which I call Sympathetic Speech Impairment, or SSI, happened yesterday at the dentist’s: As I was leaving the operatory after a consultation, the receptionist, who is a dear woman and as kind as can be, was making sweeping motions back and forth with her arms, indicating I was safe at first base. As I approached her, she sawed her arms back and forth more vigorously, then started scribbling a note. I was wondering if I should slide as I approached the reception desk or if I’d already beaten the throw, but when I got there, she triumphantly held up her note: “No charge for visit.” Ah, so.

“Free” is my favorite word in any language, but that’s another issue. This issue is why are people writing me notes to communicate with me? I’m the one who can’t talk, not them. I’ve explained to people that I am not deaf and dumb, only dumb, which I mean in the most politically correct way possible. SSI afflicted my husband when my voice became seriously unintelligible, and I started relying on hand gestures to augment conversations, pointing at things and flapping my hands in the air. while I tried to talk He started using hand gestures back at me without speaking, and I had to remind him that he could still talk ... it was me who couldn’t and who therefore had to flap.

Even my brightest friends slip into this confusion (is she deaf or is she dumb?) sometimes, making the telephone gesture to the side of their head when they say, “I’ll call you,” (Yes, I figured out instantly that you mean that you’ll call by phone rather than standing in your backyard yelling my name), or turning-a--steering-wheel gesture when they ask, “Are you still driving?”

I can’t really complain about people feeling awkward around the disabled, as I’ve been a doofus all my life when it comes to reacting to people’s disabilities. (Or fame, oddly enough. I am hugely embarrassed to see someone famous, and don’t know where to look or how to act. I generally freeze and become intently interested in something very close at hand. It doesn’t take a lot of fame to do this to me, either. Seeing someone who had a minor role in “Taxi” will cause me to closely inspect my purse zipper for 10 minutes until I feel it’s safe to look up again.)

(I was once in an elevator with Robert Redford, I think. When someone of that wattage enters a small public space, all the air whooshes out and is replaced by some sort of electricity. When he got off the elevator, the other passengers immediately let out their breaths and starting babbling about his looks, his height, his wrinkles. All I could talk about were his shoelaces, as that was all I’d seen, aside from a horrified first glimpse of his famous mug. And who knows if it was really him, anyway? To me, they didn’t look like the kind of shoelaces a famous person would wear. They just didn’t shout, “Robert Redford is wearing me.”)

But I digress.

This confusion about whether I can hear or speak or understand or respond even extends to my robot telephone text-speech persona. Typically, the answering machine will be on by the time I reach my robot phone from the other end of the house, and I and my robot voice will interrupt the message they are leaving, by saying something like: “Hello, I’m here on the phone.”

“Oh, hello. This is the pharmacy. Would you ask Beth to call me at xxx-xxxx, I need to ask a question about a prescription.”

“This is Beth. You can ask me now.”

“Thank you. Please have Beth call me back. Thank you.”

“No, don’t hang up. It’s me. I’m real, I’m alive, I’m here, I’m all ears (and a few electronic components).”

“Thank you.” Click.

The conversation doesn’t run that smoothly, of course, because there are long pauses while I type out answers, and because nobody ever expects to be suddenly talking to a live robot.

Or standing next to Robert Redford’s shoelaces, for that matter.

Life is full of surprises, isn’t it?