Public speaking can be challenging enough without a disability so speaking when you’re disabled presents its own set of unique challenges. The good news is that there are many people who have been able to transcend their disabilities and become successful speakers. Now different types of disabilities require different techniques, but whether you have problems with your speech or are confined to a wheelchair, you can still be an effective speaker. Don’t tell yourself (or let others tell you) that your disability means public speaking isn’t an option for you. If you have the ability to communicate with others, then you have the ability to be an effective presenter.
The key to becoming a successful speaker with a disability is to focus on your strengths as opposed to worrying about your weaknesses. For example: If mobility is difficult for you, then use your voice and your words to wow your audience.
We’ll begin by looking at the different challenges that disabled speakers face through a series of posts. In this first installment, we’ll focus on being disabled physically.
Do you want your disability to play a part in your speech?
The first thing you need to decide is the role that your disability will play in your speech (or speaking platform). Do you want to inspire others with your personal story of overcoming an obstacle or would like it to back seat so you can focus on your other speech objectives. It’s entirely up to you and what you’re most comfortable with.
Many disabled speakers are able to use their disabilities as a source of inspiration for others. People born disabled as well as those whose disability is the result of an accident, disease or combat have gone on to become successful motivational speakers. They are a living example of overcoming challenges and displaying courage on a day to day basis. The fact that they are able to get in front of an audience is inspirational in itself.
Now not everyone who is disabled will want to be a motivational or inspirational speaker — others may need to speak as part of their profession (sales, business owner, etc…). So they may want to not to draw attention to any physical challenges that they may have (and they may choose to take this approach for a variety of other reasons). The key here is to plan your talks in a manner where your disability is out of view. President Franklin Roosevelt was able to hide his disability from the world with creative uses of podiums and by doing speeches sitting down. Granted, this type of cover up would be nearly impossible to get away with in today’s digital age, especially with such a high profile figure, with news sleuths constantly trying to uncover information on famous faces. But your goal normally wouldn’t be to hide a disability — instead your goal is to take the focus off it.
Back in 2000, I had the opportunity to meet some of the young women competing for Miss America. I had a quick conversation with Theresa Uchytil (Miss Iowa) and even posed with her in a picture. It wasn’t until after the event when I read her biography that I found out that she was born without a left hand. Even when watching the pageant on TV, it was difficult to notice that her hand was missing as she was effective at not making it her focus. Also impressive was the fact that her talent was baton twirling — a task many of us with both hands find difficult.
Working around your disability with your speech:
Whether you have a walking cane, use crutches, have leg braces or are in a wheelchair, you may fear that your lack of movement will take away from your speech. This is usually not the case unless you can’t move anything below your neck; otherwise you still have facial expressions and hand gestures at your disposal.
But even if your movement is overly restricted, you still have your words and your voice. Your words, when chosen carefully, can have a huge impact on your audience — especially if you’re giving a motivational speech and overcoming your disability is part of the speech. Christopher Reeve was an inspiration to all who saw him speak because of his story and how he told it. He could move little more than his head and neck, yet when he spoke (whether to groups or in front of a television camera) people listened. They found him to be courageous and inspirational.
If you are able to move around, be aware of your environment and your limitations. Look for tripping hazards and other potential dangers before you get up to speak. Also, get a feel for the amount of space you have to work with and look around for any obstacles that might limit your range of motion.
In the next part of this series, I’ll talk about what to do when you have problems with speech and talking. If you have a story you’d like to share about speaking with a disability, please share it.