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Imperfect Voices

A communication scholar’s study of speech disability

Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment by Jonathan Sterne. Duke University Press, 304 pages.

Recently, I was sent to report on a caucus meeting of disabled writers at a conference on the East Coast. I was to be neutral and unobtrusive, a bystander with a notepad. The fact of my own disability would not be a factor. 

The meeting centered around the issue of accessibility. How could the conference be made more accessible for people with disabilities? Suggestions included ASL interpretation for deaf attendees, automatic doors for wheelchair-using attendees, and virtual programming for fatigue-prone attendees. There were grievances aired about the lack of “visibly” and “vocally” disabled interlocutors on panels. Conversation then turned to Covid: the recent push to do away with pandemic precautions, some felt, “left disabled people behind” and “made disabled people feel expendable.” 

To my ears, the word disabled felt suddenly, strangely imprecise. Disability seemed like an inadequate umbrella for such disparate needs and experiences, none of which had so far directly pertained to my own disabled life. As a person who stutters, I rely more on accommodations than accessibility, and my disability is unrelated to my health. Yet here we all were, in one room, as one caucus, all of us disabled. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act keeps the definition vague: disability, Section 3 says, is any “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of [an] individual.” This is the definition I trotted out, along with an extensive report from my speech therapist, when explaining why my stutter—the severity of which fluctuates to the extent that some doubt its existence—qualified me for accommodations via my university’s Disabled Students Program. As far as I knew, no one else in the program had a disability like mine.

Sterne imagines the possibilities of a scholarship that treats impairment as the rule, not the exception.

“Disability is a notably slippery category,” writes Jonathan Sterne in Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment, “central to identity construction and political organizing but difficult to pin down definitionally.” With so many gradations, how can the concept of disability, let alone the reality of it, be outlined with language? This question undergirds all of Diminished Faculties, Sterne’s study of disability and impairment, especially as they relate to speech and hearing.

The title of the book’s first chapter, “Degrees of Muteness,” gestures at the indeterminate spectrum of disability which Sterne himself occupies. Sterne is a scholar of sound, culture, communication, and technology; the author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction and MP3: The Meaning of a Format; and the editor of The Sound Studies Reader. After thyroid cancer treatment left him with a paralyzed vocal cord, he’s had varying levels of vocal impairment, using voice amplifiers, index cards, and speech therapy to help him communicate verbally. “How ironic!” someone tells him early in Diminished Faculties. “You write about sound, and something happened to your voice.” It does seem that disability is more palatable to a popular audience when cloaked in irony—how ironic that the maestro Beethoven went deaf, that the seer Tiresias was blind, that an expert on sound would become acoustically impaired. But more than an irony, Sterne’s background in sound studies is a boon, adding depth and rigor to his firsthand observations.

Sterne doesn’t try to—and, as he acknowledges, can’t—pen an authoritative or comprehensive account of disability, which is too “variable” and “contested” to claim in any meaningful way. He instead imagines the possibilities of a scholarship that treats impairment as the rule, not the exception. “Nothing works exactly like it is supposed to,” he writes. “If almost everyone and everything has some degree of impairment (though not in the same way), then impairment is a quality of experience. Impairment is always already there.”

The broad language of the ADA means that culture, which is ever-shifting, largely dictates what is and isn’t a disability in the eyes of the public. Like any social construct, the parameters of disability change over time: glasses, for instance, were once considered a stigmatizing prosthetic, so much so that in the 1960s, Britain’s National Health Service issued skin-colored frames for women. Today, a near- or farsighted person would hardly consider themselves disabled. Sterne wishes his vocal impairment was treated more like poor eyesight, and his voice amplifier more like glasses.

But despite changing cultural norms, a special stigma around speech and vocal disabilities persists. Sterne believes that this is because we tie the voice too closely to identity. The symbolism of the spoken voice is potent—consider activists who tape their mouths shut to indicate a sense of powerlessness. One could describe the caucus of disabled writers I attended as giving its members “a voice” at the conference; on its own website, the conference says its mission is to “amplify the voices of writers.” Here, voice encompasses a person, as well as their thoughts, opinions, feelings, and experiences. The mouth is turned into “an aperture between interior subject and external world,” as Sterne puts it. What are we to make, then, of a mouth that produces speech that is muffled, strained, or stuttered?

In the stranglehold of what Sterne calls the “ideology of vocal ability,” the voice becomes inextricable from personhood, agency, and individuality. But really, voices are just the product of the body’s respiratory, phonatory, and resonance systems, a motor skill that can be impaired like any other without reflecting on the character of the person with the impairment. “When voices are understood as sounds in space,” he writes, “their linkage to the interiority of a subject is tenuous at best.” The challenge is to uncouple the voice and its origin—that is, the speaker. Prior to his cancer, Sterne had a big, booming voice, the kind that could command a room and fill an auditorium. His literal voice has changed—has been, as some disability scholars might say, “cripped”—but his senses of personhood, agency, and individuality have not. “What would it take to presume nothing about the insides from where [voices] came?” he asks, envisioning a future that makes room for “other vocalities,” for voices that push us to rethink what a voice actually is.

I was drawn to Diminished Faculties having spent last year writing a thesis on stuttering, an undertaking that left me wanting more from speech-disability scholarship. There are gems in the canon—Marc Shell’s Stutter, Chris Eagle’s Dysfluencies—but a glaring omission of speech and vocal impairments from disability scholarship as a whole. Most academic writing about stuttering comprises clinical studies, and much of the popular writing about stuttering consists of personal narratives meant to inspire. Sterne combines both academic and personal modes, but when he dabbles in the latter, he asks that his reader “resist the impulse to read this as a tragic story of loss of an ability, or a tale of overcoming.” (In the 2014 book Disability Rhetoric, scholar Jay Timothy Dolmage outlines eleven harmful “disability myths,” which include seeing disability as an object of pity and treating disability as something to overcome.) “This is really a story about how to exist in a changed body and how to negotiate that change,” Sterne writes, reminding us that his story is an act of self-reflection for its own sake but also a vehicle for larger questions.

This rhetorical approach is refreshing at a moment when so much discourse around disability has been subsumed by the personal-essay industrial complex. I myself have partaken of the form, writing first-person narratives about stuttering that are read and retweeted and called “moving” and “important.” The goal of writing about disability in this way isn’t to uncover new knowledge but to articulate knowledge I already have for non-disabled readers who otherwise couldn’t access it. However one feels about this sort of disability testimony—that it is an act of consciousness-raising, an attempt at stirring empathy, or a shameless bid to feel seen—it serves a purpose for disabled and non-disabled readers and writers alike.

In fusing scholarship with memoir, the dilemma Sterne faces in Diminished Faculties is “to include the testimony of disability while subjecting the very category of testimony to a critique.” He succeeds. Writing in registers that are conversational, erudite, didactic, and even playful, he demonstrates how his experiences are undergirded by theory, and vice versa. In blog posts from 2010, shortly after acquiring his impairment, that are excerpted in the book, he contends with the disability studies concept of “disclosure” in real time:

At least once a day when I’m out or get a phone call, someone asks what is wrong with my voice. . . . I don’t know who said that coming out is a constant, ongoing process, but again I feel there is some kind of parallel between [ableism] and heterosexism. In both cases, you’re assumed to belong to a dominant category until suddenly, you do not. And when you do not, you must explain yourself.

This tacit pressure to “explain yourself” feeds the impulse to demystify disability through personal narrative. So often disabled people are expected to clarify to others what is wrong with them, a pedagogical task that more sophisticated critical explorations of disability can’t quite accomplish. But through his multi-genre approach, Sterne is able to assert and justify his existence while studying the cultural and technological forces that shape it. This is why it’s gratifying to read disability scholarship written by disabled scholars. And because Sterne acquired his impairment as an adult, he has the added perspective from what we could crudely call “both sides” of disability. When he began treatment for thyroid cancer and learned his speech might be impaired as a result, he decided, “Whatever happened, I would experiment with it and make it work for me. But even in accepting a new vocal condition, I still had to learn to live with it, and analytically, living with and through it is the interesting part.” 

Despite changing cultural norms, a special stigma around speech and vocal disabilities persists.

The interesting part. Impairment, for all its frustrations and challenges and inefficiency, makes life more interesting—richer, messier, more complex—and not just for the analytically inclined. It demands creative problem-solving, foresight, and equal parts grit and generosity. It reveals human interaction at its most profound and its most painful. It even enlarges the question of identity. People who stutter sometimes talk about the “ladder” of the self—where does our disabled identity sit in relation to our other identities, like surfer, pianist, husband, daughter? “Stutterer” is on a different rung for all of us, and often moves higher or lower over time. When disability made it so that Sterne could no longer treat his voice as a “stable foundation for self-regard” but as a fluctuating and extrinsic attribute, he was forced to look deeper within himself to forge an authentic identity.

Impairment is often more fluid than fixed—there are harder days and easier ones. It was in a stuttering support group that I learned to use “harder” and “easier” in place of the value judgements “good” and “bad,” and Sterne echoes the thinking behind this practice. He writes that impairment isn’t inherently good or bad, but rather “exists in relation to something: an external norm of ability or action, a remembered embodiment or affect, an unrealized or altered intention.” Toward the end of the book, he offers a “User’s Guide” to impairment theory. He recommends taking your impairment

to a place it hasn’t gone—it is not supposed to go . . . and when things go wrong, consider it like a bad sociology field experiment and write about it as if it were introduced into the world for the reasons of acquiring knowledge rather than just as a fact of life for you. 

Impairment, he concludes, is “a type of orientation toward the world.” Maybe that was the common thread at the caucus meeting for disabled writers—we were all oriented to expect the world to be inaccessible and unaccommodating. Like any identity or political faction, disability is not monolithic, not at all. And in that moment, at that meeting, “impairment” felt too inflexible an idea to include us all. But Sterne argues the inverse: impairment is everywhere, and everyone some point will experience it in some way. The challenge is to keep living and fighting for ourselves in an often disobliging world, knowing that imperfect voices and mouths and bodies are a natural and inevitable part of being alive.