By Jenna Ebener
Imagine you are 7 years old. You love to run, make crafts and spend time with family and friends. Everything seems normal and as it should be. Then you get sick. You have influenza and your body shuts down. Once you finally recover, you are no longer the same. At first the only body parts you can move are your eyes. Eventually you can move your arms a little, but it takes so much effort and you have no control of your fingers. You cannot tell others how frustrating this is because you can no longer work your mouth to talk. You are trapped.
Eight years later, you have a little more movement in your arms and legs, but things are much the same. You are screaming in your head, but no one can hear you.
Then someone comes along and wants to give you a voice. Speech, motor, occupational and mental health therapists come together. It takes patience, creativity and collaboration. They problem-solve what communication system will give you the greatest access to your “voice.” They determine what body parts you can move in order to hit two switches, buttons that say “yes” or “no.” Even on the days when you can barely twitch your fingers, they figure out how to give you access to those switches. A year later, you get a communication device. You can use your yes and no switches to scan through words on that device. It takes so much effort; some days you can barely hit your switches. But you never give up.
One day everything changes. Your body has been sick. You are depressed and uncomfortable. A close family member has experienced a traumatizing situation and no one has thought to talk to you about it. You have your regular feelings check-in at school with your therapists.
Normally you choose one neutral feeling like “happy,” but not today. You work harder than ever to make yourself heard. You go into your feelings page on your device and say “ashamed,” then “hopeless,” then “angry.” You want them to understand. They do. They acknowledge how you are feeling. They discover what has happened. They ask you questions. You respond. You navigate that device like you never have before. You answer yes/no questions, you make comments, you ask questions. You talk for over an hour. You are having the longest conversation you have had in almost 10 years. The session comes to an end, but you are not finished. You go to your feelings page one more time and you say “happy.”
We do not need to speak from our mouth to communicate. Even those of us who do, speak differently. We have different tones, dialects and sayings. Some of us find words right away, others need processing time. Some of us need to use communication systems. No matter how we communicate, it all comes from inside of us.
We may think that people who cannot talk “normally” have nothing to say, that they have nothing going on in their heads. But they do. They may not be able to speak in sentences or they may speak “normally” with a communication device. They are all human beings and all deserve dignity. They all deserve to be treated as another human, just with a little extra patience and creativity to help them find their voice. And when they finally can “speak,” it is the most beautiful sound you have ever heard. “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4).
(Jenna Ebener graduated in 2015 with a Master of Social Work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)