Profile: Finding Her Voice Again
Toastmasters helps one member overcome a physical disability.
By Ron Palermo, DTM
I remember the day clearly,” says my friend, Rebecca Mason, referring to the intense feeling of accomplishment she experienced after delivering her 10th speech to qualify for the CTM award. “If you would have told me two years ago that I was going to stand in front of an audience and deliver 10 speeches, I would have responded that you need to take your medication.”
Rebecca’s journey as an accomplished Toastmaster is unique. In addition to the normal fear one experiences as a public speaker, she has been battling an obstacle: literally losing her voice about 10 years ago.
Rebecca cannot easily forget the first time she realized something was amiss. “I was at work one day and the computer crashed. I called the technician and he said, ‘Why are you so upset? These things happen all the time.’ I remember thinking to myself that I wasn’t upset and wondered why he thought that I was.”
Others made similar comments. Rebecca says a friend asked during a casual conversation, “Why are you getting so excited?” On another occasion, a professor said, “Why are you freaking out?” while she thought they were calmly discussing an art project.
Comments about her voice accumulated so quickly that she started to wonder if there was a problem. “Often, while speaking on the phone, the other person would ask if I felt okay because I sounded terrible, or they’d ask me to continually repeat myself.”
Rebecca no longer wondered. She came to the realization that there was definitely something wrong with her voice. The breaking point came when a classmate commented, “When I first met you, I thought that you were about to start crying.”
Determined to find out exactly what was happening, she launched her medical odyssey. “I first saw an M.D., who – after scratching his head – referred me to an ear, nose and throat doctor. After visiting with him, he suspected that I had Spasmodic Dysphonia, a rare vocal condition that affects about one in 10,000 people.”
The disorder can cause the voice to break up or to have a tight, strained, or strangled quality. The doctor told Rebecca the only known cure was Botox injections, which would loosen the tightened vocal cords, every several months. He also recommended that she visit a speech pathologist to confirm the diagnosis and to receive therapy.
Rejecting the Botox suggestion immediately, Rebecca visited the pathologist, who confirmed the diagnosis, and they worked together on vocal exercises for several months. She jokes that the pathologist had her practice making strange sounds. “She had me talk with a breathy voice. I felt like I was trying to seduce someone. We also worked on pitch, rate and volume, as if we were working together from a Toastmasters project on vocal variety.”
After limited success, Rebecca started to see counselors, believing perhaps that there was a psychological basis for her disorder. She ended up seeing three or four practitioners without much success. Still desiring results, she continued to try nearly every possibility, including acupuncture and hypnotism. Nothing worked, although she chose not to take the hypnotist’s advice that “getting married would return your voice.”
Then one day, I invited her to a Toastmasters contest I conducted as area governor. She enjoyed the competition and commented after the event, “Wow, I wish I could do that!”
Knowing that she could, I invited her to attend a meeting at my club, the Adelante club in San Antonio, Texas. She did and was impressed, saying, “Everyone at the meeting spoke with such confidence and seemed so genuinely helpful!”
After attending a couple more meetings as a guest and not uttering a word, she decided to take a huge step and join, still with no intention of ever speaking.
Then, the inevitable happened. The club’s vice president education asked if she would be willing to give an Ice Breaker. She fearfully said yes, knowing that her “secret” would now be exposed. She said, “I was normally reserved and found it difficult speaking in front of a group. With the added burden of a voice condition, I felt overwhelmed.”
The day came and Rebecca was well-prepared. She opened the speech with a joke: “Most people join Toastmasters for various reasons, such as improving self- confidence, overcoming fear, etc. My reason is different. I joined because that guy there – as she pointed to me – made me.” After a good laugh from the audience, she settled down to deliver a heartfelt Ice Breaker that won best speech that evening. After the speech, Rebecca received a number of supportive notes about how well she had done, adding to her confidence.
She continued as a productive club member, participating in all aspects of the meetings and delivering basic manual speeches. Her most memorable one was project #6, vocal variety, where she explained her experience living with Spasmodic Dysphonia. After the presentation, one member called her his “hero” for having the courage to speak in front of a group.
Rebecca feels extremely proud about her Toastmasters accomplishments. She won the Best Speaker award nine out of the 10 times she spoke and has won several Best Table Topics and Best Evaluator ribbons.
A year ago, a new challenge arrived. Rebecca was invited to be a guest on Ron Graves’ Internet talk show Achieving the Extraordinary to discuss her struggle with Spasmodic Dysphonia and how Toastmasters has helped her. She says, “I would never have even considered speaking to an Internet audience of thousands of people without the confidence and experience I gained through Toastmasters.”
Rebecca sums up how she feels. “Yes, I still have a vocal condition and will probably have it the rest of my life. Presently, however, I’m no longer concerned about how someone thinks I should sound, and I owe this feeling to the Toastmasters program.
“Toastmasters has made such a big difference in my life. I’m now presented with opportunities to speak, and rather than be fearful of how I come across, I welcome the chance to show off the skills I’ve developed.”
She also credits popular radio talk show host Diane Rehm of NPR for inspiration. “I met her a while ago and learned about her struggle with Spasmodic Dysphonia. She has managed to use her voice to help her career. This really helps me cope, knowing that others share similar challenges.”
Through Toastmasters, Rebecca Mason has found her “voice.” She continues to develop and hopes to inspire others to overcome whatever obstacles they’re facing. She says, “I strongly recommend Toastmasters for everyone, because we all have an innate need to express ourselves. Toastmasters shows you how to best do that, regardless of your stage of development or any other challenge you may face.”
Ron Palermo, DTM, is a member of the Adelante and San Antonio Toastmasters clubs in San Antonio, Texas. A freelance writer, he is presently writing a series of Adversity to SUCCESS! books with Ron Graves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Do you have an inspiring story of how the Toastmasters program has helped you? Tell us at email@example.com