How Dysarthria Affects My Daily Life, and What I Do About It
Columnist Dagmar Munn is learning to speak with a new accent
Is it just me, or are people speaking at a faster clip nowadays?
Yeah, maybe it’s just me. It seems I’ve become hypersensitive to the various speeds and rhythms we use to communicate with each other, especially now that I live with dysarthria, a symptom of ALS that affects my speech.
First, there are the fast talkers. These are mostly the customer service folks who answer the phone with a speedy, “SmithInsuranceAgencyhowcanIhelpyou?”
And then there’s always the fast-talking order-taker whose voice comes out of the little box in the drive-thru lane at a fast-food restaurant. Don’t they know it just slows things down when customers have to keep asking them to repeat what they said?
Then there are the slow talkers. I happen to like listening to someone with a slow, Southern drawl. It’s the folks who say a few words followed by long pauses or “umm …” who drive me crazy.
Learning new ways to speak
They must have the same problem with voice-activated devices as I do. I speak so slowly that my Alexa and Google Assistant lose patience, give up, and turn off. My get-even workaround is to employ a text-to-speech app and then have a device relay my command to the other misbehaving device.
Even though I continue to practice voice skills daily to help me prepare for in-person conversations, I’m still challenged when I have to speak on the phone.
That’s because I’ve become accustomed to adding lots of body language and facial expressions to help others understand the words I’m speaking. This all works beautifully, not only in person, but also on Zoom. I’m relaxed and remember to enunciate my words and vary my pitch and tone.
But put a phone in front of me, and suddenly I feel as if I’m wearing an invisible straitjacket. My breathing is fast and shallow. Worrying that the person at the other end doesn’t understand me, I pour all my anxiety into my voice. What I think they hear is a drunk pirate screeching out commands. Argh!
In one of my voice lessons, the suggestion was made to experiment with different accents. This makes forming words easier to do. For example, in English and German accents, the sounds of “gah” or ”kah” are created in the back of the throat. Those are difficult sounds for me to produce. In contrast, with an Irish accent, words are formed mostly in the front of the mouth. So I was encouraged to listen to Irish speakers on YouTube and imitate their sounds.
I had fun doing this and did pick up a few new and easier ways to pronounce several words.
But the experience made me think, if speaking with an Irish accent is the goal for ALS patients like me who have dysarthria, what option do ALS patients in Ireland have? What accent can they use?
But that’s just me.
I’m always observing, questioning, and trying to adapt. Because that’s what living well with ALS means to me.
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