A couple of weeks ago, I woke up to say good morning to my husband and baby, but instead of my normal voice coming out, I heard a screechy, high-pitched, barely-audible voice. I felt perfectly healthy, but since I am a speech pathologist, I knew I had laryngitis. The best recommendation is vocal rest. Meaning, no talking at all. I still went to the office. I felt fine! But, without a voice, I could not do my job. So I begrudgingly either began cancelling my appointments or co-treating with our Clinical Director, Taylor, to see students together. I had to tell everyone I was sick, but when they saw me at work they said, “Oh, I heard you were sick today!” I smiled and tried speaking. Nothing came out. “Oh,” the person would laugh, “I see.” I spent about a week like this. It was fine. I had back up and I could still do office work, but I realized something really important with such a small and trivial little cold—my students, whom have speech and language disorders, walk around everyday with invisible challenges that they have trouble explaining and it likely weighs on them without us even noticing or remembering.
When we see people’s physical handicaps, we (most of us anyhow) try to be respectful by giving that person our seat, opening a door or lending a hand in a small way. The thing is, many challenges are not physical. The challenges my students with speech and language disorders have are sometimes even hard for their own parents to see. That is no one’s fault. It is because they are not always consistent and they change based on context. In other words, some of their challenges are only visible in very specific situations. I am very sensitive to my student’s needs and make every attempt to be their advocate in different situations, but when I had this small cold this realization made me take a step back. This invisible feeling I had that no one knew what was really going on with me, must be a feeling that my students have everyday. The confusing, “You don’t know what is going on with me right now” kind of feeling. The obvious difference was that my little voice issue was kind of funny and ironic, nothing in comparison to their daily struggles. When I thought about it more, I could easily imagine my students not having the emotional capacity or maturity to understand these feelings, let alone express them. I felt like it was part of my job to continue building awareness around individual differences and around the language to use when you see or hear something that sounds like someone is struggling. As sensitive as I thought I was, I felt like this little cold checked my basic assumptions again, which I was grateful for because as cliche as it sounds, things aren’t always what they seem.