Invisibility and Voicelessness

I would love to tell him how much he has impacted my life.

Dear Husband and I go to the local YMCA about 4 days a week and have come up with an athletic, albeit joint-preserving workout that we do in the pool. It’s a wonderful experience. This is the first time in my life that I’ve had an exercise routine that I actually look forward to, and have managed to keep up beyond a week or two.

In fact, we have been pretty faithful to the routine since before the pandemic. I’m rather proud of us. (I doubt it’s a coincidence that my willingness to exercise came along right about the time I started to actually love my life. Thanks, DH!)

Naturally, we enter the YMCA and check in at the front desk in the lobby. We love the staff at the Y. They always make us feel welcome.

Some days it’s rather crowded, and we don’t stick around to chat. I’ve never been a fan of crowds. I suspect I’ll never be able to drop the pandemically-inspired social distancing habit, because I have thoroughly enjoyed not catching a single cold in two years. That’s a record for me.

But on the day that inspired this blog, something peculiar happened. As we opened the front door, an electronic voice said, “Welcome to the YMCA!”

The voice sounded like it was coming from a speaker in the ceiling, so I faltered a bit. Since the lobby was relatively busy, I looked over at the staff and said something in passing like, “Okay. New disembodied voice. That’s creepy.”

They were too busy to respond. I assumed it was the opening of the door that triggered the recording. I felt kind of sorry for the staff, who would probably have to listen to it 1000 times a day.

As we walked past, I noticed that there was a new employee, and I made a mental note to say hello on the way out. We were kind of in a hurry to get into the pool, because it would be closing in 45 minutes. But before we got out of the lobby, a woman that I’ve never seen before said to me, “Thank you for talking to my student. He needs the practice.”

Huh? We hadn’t talked to that new staff member. (I assumed he was the student in question at the time.) But like I said, we were in a hurry, so I just nodded and smiled and headed for the locker room.

I mulled over the strange situation as I changed into my suit, and the mulling continued as I did my stretching exercises. I mean, there must be something I was missing. What was going on?

As the exercise routine progressed past the initial warm up, it hit me. Like a brick. And I was mortified.

The electronic voice kind of reminded me of Stephen Hawking. Electronic voices are sometimes used by people with neurological disorders such as ALS (like Stephen) or cerebral palsy. Amongst all the families crowding the lobby, clamoring to get memberships and ask questions, there was a young man in a wheelchair, kind of off to the side, looking toward the front entrance. I had seen him in the lobby a few times recently. He was always just sitting there. Every time I saw him, I assumed he was waiting to talk to the staff, or waiting for a ride. Beyond that, I had never given it much thought.

He was the one who welcomed us. His speaker must have been aimed upward and it bounced off the acoustical tile, making it sound like it was coming from the ceiling. And I hadn’t even looked at him. In fact, I arrogantly criticized the voice as being creepy within earshot of him.

Omigod, I felt horrible. I should be the poster child for tactlessness. It must have been such a big deal for him, getting this job, only to have someone mock his voice. I wanted to crawl under a rock, and take my stupid, insensitive, big mouth with me.

I had to do something. I had to apologize. Additional mulling ensued as I did my laps and tried to figure out what the heck to say to the young man. Clearly he had been working there for several days, and I just breezed right past him without even looking at him every single time. (In my defense, though, today was the first day he was using the electronic voice.) I couldn’t wait to get back out to the lobby and make amends.

Since the pool was about to close, when I came out the lobby was deserted, except for the staff, including this young man. I walked over to him and asked if it was him who had greeted me earlier. He said yes. I explained that I had been confused, but that I had absolutely no excuse for my rudeness. I told him I was mortified that I had behaved so badly. I told him that the next time he greeted me so warmly, I would definitely greet him right back (whatever that means).

His eyes were so expressive. He seemed so happy. His assistant told me that his name was Rich, and that he was volunteering at the YMCA, and would only be there for a few weeks. She assured me that he hadn’t been offended. I told Rich that I was really glad he was there, and I thanked him for talking to me.

As I walked away, I heard his assistant whisper to him, “See? That’s what we like to see.”

I haven’t seen Rich since. I hoped I would, but two days later I headed off on a two week vacation. He’s probably off to his next volunteering venue by now.

That’s truly a pity. I would love to tell him how much he has impacted my life. (I may have to ask the staff to send him a message, or a copy of this blog post, or both.)

After walking out of the YMCA that day, I began to think about how many invisible and/or voiceless people there are in this world. I have often complained that I have become more invisible as I have gained weight and aged, and I truly hate it.

It’s frustrating to want to be heard, to want to contribute, and instead you’re overlooked. I genuinely believe that everyone has a story. I believe everyone has a right to be seen. They have a right to tell their story.

And yet, Rich made me realize that I’ve spent my life overlooking certain segments of the population. People in wheelchairs. People with the same body type as my abusive stepfather. Beggars on the street. The elderly. Why do I do that?

My overlooking people doesn’t come from a place of malice. Truly, it doesn’t. It’s just that I’m a very introverted person, and I don’t cope well with large amounts of stimulation, so in order to cope, I block quite a bit out.

And, may God help me, those groups are usually easy to block out. They aren’t usually loud or aggressive or pushy. Like me, they are often resigned to their invisibility. So I suppose I hopped on the bandwagon, which rolls merrily along through life, gazing over the heads of most people. Shame on me.

I intend to make more of an effort to see people. I mean, really see them and hear them. I want to delight in the diversity of this world. That might take my introverted self way out of her comfort zone, but I think it will be worthwhile.

And it was Rich who taught me that. I’m grateful for him. But that’s not the only way he has changed my life. And I’m very excited about this next bit.

While doing research for this post, I discovered an organization called VOCALiD. According to the website, it began in 2014 when the head of the company went to an assistive technology conference, and noticed that the bulk of the people there who were relying on electronic voices were using the SAME voice. That’s not right. Everyone should have their own voice.

Granted, voice technology has come a long way since the voice that Stephen Hawking used, but still, there still weren’t a wide variety of choices in 2014. Imagine a little girl with cerebral palsy having to use the voice of a man. That would be, dare I say it? Creepy. Imagine her having to use the voice of an old woman. That would be wrong, too. Everyone who needs a prosthetic voice should be able to have one that fits their age, gender identity, nationality, and personality.

That’s how VOCALiD was born. They wanted to collect a database of as many voices as possible. (Currently 91,000 voices and counting.) Once they did so, people could have a unique voice, not a one size fits all voice. With this ever-growing database, they can use one voice or blend the sound of several to create your own special voice.

The way they zero in on the perfect voice for you is quite interesting. Apparently, many people with neurological challenges can at least vocalize their vowels. It seems that those vocalizations constitute a unique voice “DNA”. Once they have that, they can filter their database to find a variety of voices for you to choose from that have a similar DNA.

But here’s the cool thing. If you speak with no impediments, you can donate your voice to their voicebank. And it’s really easy to do. You record your voice remotely, even from the comfort of your own home. They give you a series of voice prompts to read at your own pace. It does take a couple of hours, but once you’ve read all the prompts, you’ve created every necessary sound to allow people to have a full vocabulary and be able to communicate with the wider world.

Check out this delightful video for more details.

I am signed up to do this soon. I can’t wait to give someone a voice! I love the idea of someone finally being able to feel like she’s speaking the way she’d expect herself to speak. The idea just makes me really happy. (I’m sure I’ll blog about the experience when I’m done, so watch this space.)

I hope you’ll hop on over to VOCALiD and donate your voice as well. Allow a voiceless person to have choices. Let them finally be seen and heard. We need you!

Check this out, y’all. I wrote a book!

Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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