As the universe would have it, my name is “Meryl,” which in itself is not so out of the ordinary. However, I cannot pronounce the "r" sound if it appears in the middle of a word or after a vowel. In other words, I cannot pronounce my own name.
It may sound melodramatic, but my speech impediment has affected my identity, friendships, family dynamic and my professional path. Still, many think it is "no big deal" and that I should "stop whining," since I'm lucky I don't have a "real" disability.
There are social rules that limit polite people from saying aloud the stupid or unthoughtful things that they may think. Apparently, these rules do not apply to speech impediments. It is not shocking for me to hear a sales clerk ask, “Do you have a lisp?” To which I reply, “No, I have a speech impediment.” Occasionally, they will go on to say “That’s what a lisp is,” as if they are so smart for knowing better than I know myself why I sound different than most people.
Growing up, I had three different teachers who openly criticized or teased me in front of classmates regarding my speech impediment. When I was in college, more than one misguided potential suitor attempted to pick me up by mimicking my speech. At the time, this hurt my feelings terribly.
More times than I can count, someone has thought mimicking my speech was an appropriate party trick. I no longer get mad. I just let the person know I don't think it's funny or original, and I don't like it.
There are many ordinary tasks that most take for granted that result that are hard for me. Automated phone systems are simply awful. I often simply begin with “I need to speak to a human," rather than struggle to be understood by a machine. I use other people’s voices for my voicemail box.
I don't drive, but it's hard to communicate to a taxi driver where I would like to be taken. I'll say "Please take me to the corner of Fourth and Pine." The taxi driving will most likely respond, "First and Pine?" Feeling thankful that the address only has one "R" sound, I elaborate "No fourth and Pine. Like one, two, three, FOUR." I might even hold up four fingers to ensure we are on the same page. If I'm lucky he or she will get it at that and I'll be on my way. Except more likely, I will hear "Well, why didn't you say so?"
If the remarks are made in a tone that suggests the taxi driver meant nothing by it, I may even nod and smile. Then, next I'll hear, "Where are you from?"
Depending on my mood, I may simple act like I have no clue why they are asking and simply state where I am from, but this just prolongs the conversation. "Really? You sound foreign." This then forces me to discuss my speech impediment with a stranger.
On days where I am feeling kind, I gently address the issue straight on. "I'm from the US. I just talk this way. No accent, just uniquely me."
Introducing myself has always been challenging. Most of the time I have to repeat myself or get someone who knows me to intercept. I was blessed with a supportive college friend who would pronounce my name for me at parties. I recently got married and I am in the process of changing my last name. As life would have it, my husband’s first and last name contains “R”s. I am delighted to take my husband’s last name even though this means that introducing myself will become even more complicated. I am ready for this challenge.
The first time I was questioned about my speech at a job interview I was embarrassed and shocked. Afterward, I cried on the phone to a friend. Now I give the following rehearsed response with a polite, professional smile: “I am glad you asked so I can clarify. I have a speech impediment but it does not affect my intelligence or my ability to perform my job. I am able to clearly convey information to others. I believe it makes me more accessible to children who have their own unique challenges.”
I am sure I have been overlooked for opportunities based on my speech impediment. I have overheard people describe me as “the girl who talks funny,” “The lady who talks like a baby,” and “I’m sure you’ll recognize her. She has a speech impediment.”
Many well-meaning people have offered solutions or tried to help. A close family member until very recently would constantly interrupt me to correct my pronunciation by exaggerating the syllables that I had mispronounced. Besides being demeaning, this interrupted my train of thought and interfered with any relevant communication.
Several acquaintances have told me stories about how their cousin, friend’s little sister, neighbor’s daughter or someone they knew growing up used to sound like me but had speech therapy or surgery and now speaks normally. I let them know I am glad that their loved one was successful, but that after 10 years of speech therapy, I am done trying to change.
I currently accept the way I speak for what is but refuse to let it define my view of myself. I am not particularly happy about it but it is not something I dwell upon anymore. I still cringe when I hear a recording of my own voice. I am aware that it may be the first thing someone notices about me. But others’ comments no longer sting as much as they did a decade or two ago. I am uniquely me, and I am OK with it, even if strangers are not.