Dumb: A comic about a voice gone missing

Listen to this post: 

If there’s one “compliment” that irks me, it’s when extroverted disabled people or people with access and resources are called The Voice For The Voiceless when they talk about disability rights, justice or inclusion. (Note: I put “compliment” in quotation marks because that’s how I show that it’s intended to be a compliment when someone says it, but I don’t receive it as a compliment. To me it’s painful.) Thing is, when you call someone voiceless, you’re saying they have no agency, autonomy, wishes, desires, abilities, capacities, whatever you call these things. I’ve heard people say that folks with brain injury don’t or can’t even know what they want to do in life. Let’s just make them happy and comfortable. But the folks who say that, have you ever gone up and just asked a person with brain injury what they want to do? Many of us, even my community members with substantial impairments, know themselves and what they want and need. Don’t confuse a lack of loudness, extroversion, access, fluent speech and language, or a desire to speak publicly with a lack of ideas and awareness.

But what about someone who really is voiceless? And I mean no voice. I found Canadian comic artist and writer Georgia Webber today, and am I ever thrilled! Georgia has co-opted the idea of “voiceless” in the most incredible ways through her art. Like a brain injury itself can’t be seen when you look at someone, neither can a voice disorder. And Georgia had one. She took a very stressful treatment route of going into complete voice rest for six months. Voice rest, my friends, is not at all like resting. I know because I’ve done it. One of my little secrets is my own voice disorder, which at times has both silenced me (read that as too ashamed of my pre-surgery voice to even speak) and caused silence (read that as a week at a time of no talking, coughing, whispering, crying, singing or laughing so the vocal cord could heal right after surgery). And because people tend to associate lack of fluent communication with lack of intelligence, she has also co-opted the word “dumb” by naming an entire comic series about her voice rest and recovery with that word. Her comic is called “Dumb.” And it’s brilliant.

People with brain injury and people with voice disorders (and oddballs like me with both), it’s time to unite in a quiet celebration. (Quiet if you can’t talk, don’t want to talk, don’t like to listen, or can’t stand noise!) Let’s raise our notepads and whiteboards in solidarity! Because we have so much more in common that someone might realize. Like these:

1. Well, Georgia already covered it. If you don’t or can’t speak, people think you have nothing to say or that you’re dumb. Both are considered negative. Is there some human imperative to value talking a lot or people we think are super smart? No, there really isn’t.

2. It’s invisible! I’ll never understand why brain injury is called hidden or invisible. Like yesterday, I got mad that two people were talking at once and stormed out of the room without saying good-bye. I went to lie down in a barn even though I knew there might be goat poop in the hay. That’s kind of visible. Or Georgia (or me post-surgery) walking around with a whiteboard or pad of paper to write for communication. Um, we can all see that.

3. Advice. Endless advice. “Have you tried this diet to improve your brain function? You need to exercise more. Try this. Try that. Go to this specialist. Do more crossword puzzles. Knit. Quilt. Leave your house more. Stay home more. Get more positive in your attitude. Let me help you. Here, I’m helping you. Hey, I helped!” People used to tell me to drink tea and honey when my voice disorder was most severe. And I would tell them in my nasty, croaky, whispery voice, “Ahem, if I put the soothing honey on the spot where the voice disorder is, I might aspirate the honey into my lungs and get pneumonia and die. Or I will have a coughing fit, which could lead to another vocal cord injury. Thank you. Tea and honey will do nothing for my voice disorder.” I know Georgia’s been offered tea and honey, and I haven’t even met her.

4. Fear. I had someone gasp and step away upon hearing the news that I had had a traumatic brain injury even though the injury was a year before that. I wasn’t currently bleeding from the head, but she stepped away anyway just in case. (Note: I wasn’t scaring her when we were talking about art right before that.) And back when I was forced to write to communicate in loud places, people who struck up conversations with me ended them as soon as they saw my note: “Hi! I have a voice disorder and can’t talk right now. But I can write to you!!” Why is that a conversation stopper?

5. Questioning: What is a person who can’t speak? What is a mind? What is your value if and when these things don’t work right? What is “working right?” Can society flex enough to include us as we are?

I want you to check out Georgia’s work at GeorgiasDumbProject.com online. Read a great article about it on Broken Frontier online.