A Different Light 4 August 2018


“Get a life – you’re not on the Titanic” was one of the harsher comments from a Facebook friend in response to my last column on my neck. “Thanks Kim!” But I get it- reality is all relative. I’ve been doing preliminary judging for the Attitude Awards this week.  It’s an honour. The Attitude Awards is an event that gets more glamourous, more prestigious and has a higher profile every year. Attitude TV celebrates the rich diversity and exquisite value disabled people lend to New Zealand society. It’s also rich and diverse in volume of judging data, with eight categories with multiple applicants with multiple questions!

A common question in the entry form in most of the categories asks what hardships/barriers has this person had in terms of achieving, excelling, overcome, not to mention triumphing.

When you are working with other disabled people you can’t use yourself as a reference point. You have to get up in your virtual helicopter to see a bigger picture with multiple perspectives. But it’s hard. For instance I have a tendency to think, “have they got a speech impairment, no? Well that’s a walk in the park”.

To me when I talk, I sound as normal and as clear as the sad sap sitting next to me (“oops sorry Arlene”, my long suffering Personal Assistant ). When I listen to my own voice on a recording, my reality crumples into a forlorn heap on a lonely, wet floor. My inner voice says “JAYZUS! No wonder!”  No wonder people can’t understand me when I can’t understand myself on replay, no wonder strangers may think I’m intellectually impaired, no wonder I attempt verbal tap dances using humour to show off my intellect , rather than a stark focus on my voice.

Now, yes I know, everyone hates their voice when they hear it on a recording, well nearly everyone, (Trump?). Apparently, this is because we are atomically and neurologically designed not to analyse our own voice too much. We hear our own voices differently to how we hear other peoples. When you hear other people’s voices the sound travels through the air while your own voice travels through your bones. Because of this, your own voice is going to sound different. It travels to your inner ear which has a mechanical filter, which protects your inner ear so it also reduces what you hear. But here’s the real kicker; Neurologists found out recently that when you open your mouth to create a sound, your own auditory cortex shuts down. So you hear your voice but your brain actually never listens to the sound of your voice.

Apparently expert voice analysis (both human and artificial) can detect Parkinson’s Disease or heart disease in people before other symptoms present themselves. When people talk to their spouse their voice can be analysed to not only predict if there will be a divorce, but when it will be happen. I wonder what the analyst would say if they heard my voice, I dare say it would be something like “Shit, he’s having a hard day!”  People sometimes hang up when I answer the phone. Charming!

In 2004, after a Human Rights class action (brought about by Whangarei Deaf activist – Kim Robinson),  Telecom introduced the NZ Relay system which enables deaf people to make phone calls by either typing into a telex like device or an application on the website, which a Relay worker would then read out to the person who was being rung. A few years later NZ Relay added on a ‘speech to speech’ service for people with speech impairments. I remember the Northern Advocate phoning me when they were writing a story on the subject. The headline‘ “I’m not drunk or on drugs”, says Jonny’, along with a large photo of me brought much sarcastic hilarity to my friends and family. Hmmm…

When all is said and done, speech is another unique identifier, rich with hidden sub conscious messages by which we are all influenced. It is a powerful component of that all too over- rated concept, the First Impression. People have hidden depths and people are shallow, people are genuine and people lie.

As in judging you can’t just take one single attribute into account – you can’t stop at the first impression, you need grapple with the whole. So, I better get back to this judging …only seven volumes to go…


Jonny Wilkinson is the CEO of Tiaho Trust – Disability – A Matter of Perception. A Whangarei based disability advocacy organisation.