Shut Up, Shot Down

by Larry Biondi


"Don't worry, sir. We've got it under control."

     It would be easier to explain if I compared my lifelong predicament with being a foreigner who doesn't speak English. But for me and others with speech disabilities, it's much different. People don't just ignore us, they patronize us, think we're stupid, and maybe fear us too. We hear them. They don't hear us.

     The police are no exception. My power wheelchair broke down one afternoon, out in the community. I flagged down the police for assistance. What I wanted was to call my support person to the rescue. Without taking the time to listen and understand, they rudely raffled through my work bag and belongings in search of my I.D.

     Every time I told them what I really wanted, they answered, "Don't worry, sir. We've got it under control" — which they didn't. Lucky for me, my chair kicked in. I fled police protection and wheeled to another person for help.

     On my way to a party, I knew I was headed in the right direction but couldn't remember the exact address. I asked a neighbor for directions, and she went into her house, I thought for a phone book or something. Then she returned to say, "Just hold on. I called the police for you."

     Geez. I didn't know asking for directions was a crime. I took off down the street again, but the cops arrived, pursuing me as if I'd run a red light. At least I was the talk of the party. My hosts said I was their first guest to arrive with a police escort.

     When we are young, speech therapists show people with speaking disabilities how to get peanut butter off the roofs of our mouths with our tongues, to control our breath when we speak, to talk slow-ly and e-nun-ci-ate. No one teaches us that the problem isn't in us but in the way society perceives us, and no one is teaching society how to listen to us.

     People escape their own uneasiness, conveniently, by choosing to hush our voices, shuffling us to others as if to imply, "Well, I did my part, it's their problem now."

     If they could hear our unspoken words!

Larry Biondi is an independent living specialist at Progress Independent Living Center in Forest Park, Ill., where the TTY number is 708-209-1826.