Using speech recognition while having a predilection for written language has given me a lot of opportunity to think about concepts like “having a voice” and “speaking out.” I will always firmly believe that written communication can be just as powerful as spoken. As I’ve said, I preferred for quite a while to communicate the “heavy stuff” through my hand. It felt more natural and fluent that way; for me, silence is often a feature of language and can enhance my thought process. But sometimes I didn’t choose. I had to — my oral voice was ignored.
It is true that I speak well. It is true that I have quite a lot of words in my head. However, these things don’t mean much if I’m trying to communicate with people who refuse to hear me out. My voice becomes particularly useless when I’m trying to explain how something ableist has harmed me. The minute people interrupt me with, “I was being helpful!” or “You need to understand that whatever I did wasn’t intentional,” I feel like I can’t breathe and my voice shuts off. I’m not proud of this. If I do manage to complete my thought out loud, the other person’s response is often something like, “I’m sorry we had this communication problem. I appreciate your willingness to work on it.” Note the absence of responsibility.
If I absolutely need to say something, I retreat to the undercurrent of written English, the alphabet arranging itself fiercely in my brain. I have print thoughts, always, even when I have no sound. But sometimes I need sound. In order to tell my side without interruption, I still have to use written English — continuing the conversation in face-to-face speech would waste my breath. But to write now, I have to use the same voice that has just been cut off as though worthless. Recently, though, I found that Dragon is damn good at reassuring me that yeah, I still exist.
For the longest time I thought of Dragon as simply an input device, a way of sending keystrokes so that I could have my printed thoughts more easily. Dictation to me was a mechanical process; my voice was not strictly my voice but a tool. I was very much mistaken. While these things are true, they are also incomplete. The other day, as I sat down to write my side of a particularly bad situation, I was startled to realize that my dictating was very much an act of “speaking out” in the asserting or protesting sense, and not just vocalizing.
More than just transcription, dictation is the act of giving alphabetic form to invisible speech. When I began to dictate my indignation and disheartenment, I was only telling the microphone what I would have told the other person if given a chance. The difference was that the other person gave the impression I was invisible or inaudible — that I hadn’t said anything at all. Dragon, however, proved that my voice had actually registered by setting my words down on the screen. I could see them and read them and confirm that yes, that’s what I meant to say. I had a reflection. I was not a ghost. The letters stood out in my head as if to say, I am here.
And so I printed out my side of the conversation. There was nothing on that page to distinguish typing from dictation. And that was as it should be. But I knew — as did the other person, knowing my devices — that my voice was all over that page either way. And now it’s the other person who has fallen silent, perhaps thinking. I can hope.