Profile: Overcoming a Unique Challenge
Canadian speaker lacks sight but
inspires with his commitment.
By Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM
Photo Caption: Club Franco-énergie President
Darcy MacDougall poses with fellow members.
For most Toastmasters, one of the biggest challenges of public speaking is overcoming nervousness. Just the thought of being in front of an audience is enough to make nearly any new member cringe.
Darcy MacDougall wasn’t nervous when he showed up for his first Toastmasters meeting. After all, he’d been a guest speaker at numerous local schools and special events. But he did arrive with one unique challenge: He is legally blind.
Toastmasters has helped him prevail over that challenge. The support and skills provided by fellow members and Toastmasters programs have had a big impact on MacDougall’s life.
“I had heard people sing the praises of Toastmasters before I joined,” he says. “And now I can add my voice to that song!”
A resident of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, MacDougall has been sightless since birth. But that didn’t stop him from graduating from high school and then earning a degree at the University of Prince Edward Island. He’s been employed with Veterans Affairs Canada for the past four years, developing policy and conducting training in computer security.
Two years ago, MacDougall’s then-boss, Kin Tue-Fee, invited him to a Toastmasters meeting. MacDougall wasn’t intimidated – but he wasn’t particularly excited, either. “I accepted his invitation, but somewhat reluctantly,” he says with a chuckle. “I’d heard of Toastmasters before, but I was really going only because Kin was my boss and he wanted me to.”
If MacDougall was a unique guest, the club he visited was unique, too. Most members of Club Franco-énergie – which is in Charlottetown – speak English as their first language, but club meetings are conducted in French. So in addition to providing training in public speaking and leadership, the club offered the promise of helping MacDougall upgrade and perfect his second- language skills – a critical career advantage for Government of Canada employees. It proved to be an irresistible combination.
“I had a hunch that Toastmasters might be a perfect fit for Darcy, and my hunch was right,” says Tue-Fee. “He quickly embraced the communication and leadership programs, and his self-confidence got a big boost.”
“I’m not typically quick to join new groups, but it took only that one meeting to convince me that Toastmasters was just what I needed,” MacDougall recalls. “I had expected that it would be rigid and serious, kind of like work – but it wasn’t like that at all. Everyone was so warm, positive and enthusiastic.”
Speaking without notes, a huge challenge for most members, came naturally to MacDougall: Because of the inconvenience of relying on Braille or audio formats, he was used to relying on his memory. He presented four speeches within four months, and stepped in as club secretary when a vacancy arose.
But when an evaluator gently hinted that a speech he delivered was a bit “tedious,” MacDougall began to realize that effective speaking was about much more than just feeling comfortable in front of a crowd. The evaluator’s words got him thinking about speech organization, vocal variety and other elements of successful communication. It also led him to confront his biggest challenge – using body language effectively. After all, having never had the visual cues that sighted people take for granted, how could he produce appropriate gestures to support his words? And how could he make eye contact with an audience he couldn’t see?
Fortunately, all the help he needed could be found among the membership of Club Franco-énergie. Once attuned to his unique challenge, clubmates made a special effort to offer relevant, focused feedback. Among them, Mariette Hachey, club president at the time, stood out as a mentor, reviewing Darcy’s speeches with him in advance and helping him develop a repertoire of meaningful gestures.
Still, as MacDougall worked through the Competent Communication manual, he chose to leave project 5 – “Your body speaks” – for last. When he finally completed that speech in June 2008, he achieved more than a CC designation: He also proved to himself that, with personal commitment and the support of others, a sightless speaker could indeed convey effective body language.
“That one felt really good,” he says of the speech. “My clubmates commented that I was well oriented to the group and the room, and that my gestures were appropriate – even entertaining!”
Around the same time, another breakthrough took place: MacDougall, who was born and raised on Prince Edward Island, was a guest speaker at Premiere Toastmasters Club, Charlottetown’s largest and longest-established club. Even in an unfamiliar meeting room in front of an unfamiliar Toastmasters audience, he was able to use his new skills to impress.
His Toastmasters training has benefited his personal and professional lifes as well. “I think I’ve come out of my shell,” he says. “I used to be somewhat shy, but now I feel much more at ease in networking and starting conversations with new people.”
One of his responsibilities at work has been to deliver hour- long training sessions about security policy and responsibilities. He now presents a mandatory and potentially dry subject in an interesting and engaging way. “I know that my new skills are helping me get the message across more effectively.”
Club Franco-énergie has also provided an ideal forum for MacDougall to enhance his French language skills. Bilingualism is a critical career advantage for federal employees in Canada, as many positions are open only to those who speak both official languages. Through Toastmasters, he has attained not only the highest level of fluency but also an exemption from future re-testing in reading French.
MacDougall’s progress as a Toastmaster continues. He is working on his Advanced Communicator Bronze award, served as club president, and participated in evaluation and international speech contests.
“Darcy’s journey of developing confidence, leadership and language has led him to personal and professional success through Toastmasters,” says Hachey. “His success is directly reflected in the people and achievements of our club, as we all enjoyed and learned from the journey together. He’s a true example of where Toastmasters can take you.”
For Darcy MacDougall, Toastmasters has opened doors of friendship, opportunity and skill. And for all Toastmasters, he is an inspiring example of how our communication and leadership programs can help members pre- vail over their challenges.
Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM, is a speaker, writer and environmental consultant living in Upper Kingsclear, New Brunswick, Canada. Reach him at www.Changeyourcorner.com.