“Grab the bottom of your chair as hard as you can and say, ‘Grrrr,’ ” instructs the speech therapist, gritting her teeth in an expression of mock anger.
I’m 8 years old, and I can’t pronounce “r,” “s” or “l” in the same ways as most other people around me. Once a week, I’m summoned from class for a private speech lesson because of my “abnormal” pronunciation. I am a project — a broken thing that needs to be repaired — for the staff of my elementary school.
“Growl ‘grrrr’ like you’re really angry,” she says, and I am angry. My face flushes with embarrassment and frustration, but I still can’t match the sound that she’s making. Not yet. It would take about two years of speech therapy for me to learn to speak how I was “supposed” to speak.
“L” was the easiest for me. Next came “s,” and lastly “r.” It was only after I’d mastered all three of those letters that I could say the word “squirrel” without eliciting puzzled looks from anyone listening. My old pronunciation of “thkwuwuh” would always confuse people at first. Now I could be understood more quickly. Problem solved?
Speech therapy helped me communicate more easily and probably spared me from years of ridicule. But I have mixed feelings when I think about those hours I spent growling, hissing and wearily repeating sentences for my therapist. Over and over I would read aloud about seashells, lollipops, rural writers and those goddamn squirrels. I had to perform these tasks because I was judged to have had an impediment, a disorder, a disability. And I think the very notion of disability is worth examining.
In one of my literature classes, “Orphans and Feral Children: Notes on Queer Childhood,” professor Poulomi Saha has taught us about the “psychiatrization of children,” an idea from the French social theorist Michel Foucault. Today we tend to think of child development as a linear progression toward productive adulthood, with this end goal of capitalist productivity being seen as desirable and “normal.” But it wasn’t always like that.
Foucault argues that our idea of “normal” development emerges from school and hospital evaluations. These institutions repeatedly assess children’s possible future productivity and then separate them into subjective categories: Some kids are judged to be normal and productive, while others are judged to be abnormal and in need of correction. At my school, children who aced an abstract reasoning test were placed in the Gifted and Talented Education, or GATE, program. On the other hand, kids who struggled to pronounce words such as “squirrel” or “seashell” were placed in remedial speech therapy. I was in both of these categories.
Speech therapy made me embarrassed of my own voice. Did being placed in GATE compensate for this? Not really. We just sat in a small circle and tried to solve “brainteasers” (mental puzzles). And being separated into the GATE group made me almost as embarrassed as being singled out for speech therapy. The non-GATE kids were smart, too, but being left out might’ve made them feel like they weren’t good enough. All because of a dumb test.
How can we fight this tyranny of normality? Often kids like me are made to feel embarrassed about their differences, and smart kids with unique abilities can fall through the cracks if they don’t communicate in the expected manner. Returning to speech impediments like mine, what if we viewed so-called impediments the same way we view accents? That might help, but it wouldn’t end the stigma. “Impediment” can refer to a hindrance, an obstruction or a defect; often accents function as social impediments, meaning that they can hinder or obstruct someone’s attempts at social connection as other people judge them for speaking differently.
Of course, some accents can leave the listener with a positive impression of the speaker, but these impressions are inextricable from political, ethnic and economic power relations. Think of how a certain hateful racist American might contrast a posh English accent (or maybe a Norwegian accent) with the Afro-Caribbean accent of someone from Haiti, a so-called “shithole country.” Maybe my childhood speech pattern was seen as an accent, but an impeded or defective one that needed to be fixed. And once it was “fixed,” I became a productive subject worth listening to.
When I finally managed to “grrrr” the way my speech therapist wanted me to, it must’ve felt like “mission accomplished” for her. But was it a worthwhile mission? I was able to communicate before this — I just pronounced things differently.
Did I regard my rhotic rumble as an accomplishment? At the time, I probably did. But I don’t remember the moment of my linguistic assimilation, of the triumph of the normal. Maybe it wasn’t a moment worth celebrating, after all. I don’t blame my therapist. She seemed like a nice person who just wanted to help. And I don’t exactly lament my years of speech therapy; I lament the societal standards that deemed it necessary.
Disability is a complex subject, and I’m no expert. I’m just reflecting on my own experiences in order to question some ideas that have become naturalized over time. “Normal” development is so firmly entrenched in our conception of childhood that we tend to just accept it as part of growing up. But there’s nothing natural, normal or ahistorical about this idea of normal development. Things are much more complicated. In fact, they’re far from elementary, my dear reader.