When I was young, my older sister gave birth to a beautiful little girl. Our joy gave way to fear when we discovered fairly early that she had suffered some sort of damage at birth. It caused developmental and learning delays and although it was clear there was an issue, there was a cover-up of sorts. As her family, we were never really sure whether it was on the part of the medical community, as my sister alleged medical malpractice, or if it was denial on my sister's part. We surmised over time that it was probably a little bit of both. And as you can imagine, sensitive topics like this either become the central focus, or everyone pretends that nothing happening. In our case, it was the latter. Denial - everyone was in denial. That denial eventually caused my niece to suffer with learning differences and a very clear speech impediment, that for the most part, were not treated as aggressively as perhaps they could have been. The conclusion: she made it through high school, managed as best she could, and pretended, like most everyone else around her, that an orthodonture issue was the cause of her speech issues. She managed to graduate high school, attain a fairly decent job and bob and weave through life, not more or less successful than the next person. Still, it had always bothered me that we all just allowed her mother's denial to be the beginning and ending of her story. I can't tell you how many times each of us sat in silence while her mother would exclaim in elation, "She is so excited that she's about to get her teeth fixed. Finally she'll be able to speak correctly." But it wasn't to be. And we were all complicit because we knew it wasn't about crooked teeth. Each and every time, my niece would go through a complicated dental procedure, and yes, her jaw would be better aligned, or an extra tooth pulled, but the speech impediment remained. To give you some context, if I could liken it to anything, I would she always sounds like her mouth is full and her words aren't always clear.
My issue with the denial, was less about my fears for my niece and more about the fact that people constantly assumed she was mentally disabled - which, I can say with certainty, was not the issue. But life goes on. We all have are havy burdens to bear, some bigger than others, but she was resilient and managed quite fine.
Many years later, a mother herself, she became embroiled in a bitter custody battle with her son's father. The father's family was alleging she was not fit to take care of her son. She decided to fight hard and hire a top lawyer. But every time she called attorneys, they would wish her luck but politely decline the case. Of course his was AFTER speaking with her for only a few minutes by phone. One day I asked if I could give her honest advice. She agreed to listen. I said, "Look, you have a speech impediment. You are trying to get a lawyer to help you, yet like everyone else in the past, they are judging you without truly knowing the circumstances. Well, now you are a mother and this is more important than just 'you' and how you look. At the beginning of every conversation from now on, try saying this, "I want you to understand that I have a speech impediment that I've had my whole life. It doesn't affect my mental capacity, nor does it affect my ability to care for my son. I want to be clear about that upfront." She agreed to try it. After all it was the first time anyone had really been honest with her and in my opinion, I think it was a relief. She did just that and retained a terrific attorney. My niece ended up winning full custody of her son. I was never more proud than on the day of her trial when she was asked to speak to the judge and she started with, "Your honor, I have a speech impediment, but that is the extent of my issues. It does affect my mental capacity, nor does it affect my ability to care for my son."
Why did I tell her to do that? It's disarming. When people judge you silently, there is no option to address the pink elephant in the room. They draw a conclusion, stare or make assumptions and the option to shed awareness or bridge a gap, is shut down. My niece was lucky. She took back her power by addressing the issue which it was clear everyone was the same issue by which she was judged daily. Most were too uncomfortable to talk about it.
Let's start talking - all of us. The more we talk about learning issues, delays, and all of our differences in general, the more we disarm the judg-iest among us and take back our power! Talk about it. If you can't start in the real world, start here in this safest of forums. And then slowly, we will all find our voices again and collectively empower the next generation!