No more “Robot Lady”

I just read, with great interest, about the successful larynx transplant that has enable a woman to talk again, after more than a decade of being unable to speak except using an electronic device that generates mechanical speech. I have encountered a few people with such devices in my life, and I admit that it has always made me uncomfortable.

I would never make fun of such people, as teenage pranksters who made fun of Brenda Jensen and called her “robot lady.” But I could never act quite naturally with them – I’d keep from staring but I couldn’t ignore the strangeness of the sounds coming from them. I’ve read about how people with visible disabilities greatly appreciate those rare people who neither stare at their physical deformity nor pointedly avoid looking at it, and I would like to be that way but I don’t manage it.

My first thought when reading the article was that losing my voice wouldn’t be as big a deal for me as for someone as sociable as Jensen. I was just reflecting today on how much more comfortable I am with written communication, because it lets me edit myself before other people learn what I have to say. When I am speaking, I have to be able to come up with words to say what I want faster than I can really formulate them. So either I don’t say what I want to, or I say something that doesn’t come out the way I would like it to.

Writing isn’t practical for every circumstance, though. Imagine going to the store and having to write out your question when you can’t find something. Or wanting to make a doctor’s appointment without being able to just call his office. And how would you greet people at work or at church?

I imagine if I ever had to use one of those electronic devices to “speak,” most people would be very understanding and caring. But I would think about how I always felt uncomfortable around people with “robot” voices, and wonder how many people around me felt that way.

Right now, larynx transplants are very rare (this was the second in the U.S., and the only one to involve transplanting a part of the windpipe also), both because of the difficulty of the operation, and because the recipient has to take drugs for the rest of his life to avoid the transplant being rejected. But I seem to remember reading something somewhere recently (perhaps this article) that held out hope of developments that would reduce or remove the need for such drugs.


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