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Emma Brigham

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“My voice is a defining part of who I am” writes Brigham. In their discussion of the ways in which their speech impediment shaped their experiences of growing up in the small Massachusetts town of Chelmsford, the author employs two kinds of specificity to ground readers: on the one hand they discuss the physiological reasons for the condition and on the other, through a recreation of specific experiences, like the one when they go out, as a child, to a restaurant with their family. This essay also takes a refreshing analytic turn when the author empathizes with international students who, like them, draw attention to themselves because of the way they sound. If speech is a critical point of contact between individuals and the world, then it is vital, Brigham writes, to remove pre-conceived notions to make sure that those connections are inclusive experiences.

Emma Brigham


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year


When interacting and befriending people on campus, I was bombarded with the same question: “Where are you from?” Upon hearing a substandard answer from Chelmsford, they’d follow up by asking about my accent. After years of answering the same question, I devised a perfect response that wouldn’t offend anyone and keep up an easygoing exterior. “Yeah, most people think it’s an accent,” I would quietly chuckle. “It’s actually a speech impediment.”

Everyone’s reactions to this answer varied from surprised to embarrassed. I would try to avoid the awkward apologies whenever I could, considering it makes for a poor first impression. Many thought I was from Australia or Britain. Some people loved how “cute” and “exotic” it sounded, and it was amusing at first. After the second day, it started to get annoying. I had already had a few dozen of the same conversation, and I was sick of repeating myself over and over again. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I had gotten to know these people first. They didn’t mean anything bad for what they were asking and were curious about my situation. But it still bothered me.

My mouth is a little different than most people’s. My hard palate on the roof of my mouth leads to my soft palate in the back. The uvula hangs from the soft palate in a teardrop shape. The path splits with a flap separating the two: the trachea in one direction for breathing and the esophagus in the other for eating and drinking. The larynx, or voice box, is somewhere around there. My voice is a defining part of who I am. It’s used to attract the attention of friends, laugh at a joke, or talk to others. My tongue, a key component of my voice, is covered in papillae. It is also the cause of my distinction. The way it moves and interacts with my mouth makes a noticeably different sound when compared to others. It’s like a filter between my voice box and the outside world. When I try to say ‘r’s, only ‘w’s come out. I can’t hear it myself, and neither can my family. It happened in middle school here and there, where someone would comment on how I said, ‘won’t instead of ‘run’ or ‘Bwigham’ instead of ‘Brigham.’ Others perceive it as an accent. To be fair, I thought it was one too at first. A good friend of mine has been around speech impediments for long enough to know one when she hears it, and a few years ago, she brought it up to me. Chelmsford, Massachusetts, is a small community with a small likelihood of meeting new people. I knew most of the students in my school. As a result, my speech impediment rarely came up unless I was outside of the community. But when it did, it sometimes made quite the story.

There was one interaction that I remember to this day. My mom had discovered an outdoor bar offering a family-friendly night for a quiet Tuesday evening. My sister, brother and I were playing in the brightly colored blow-up bouncy house that definitely was not made for our size. It was dusk, and the sun was just setting on the horizon. We had found a kid to play with for the night, even if he was a little more than half our ages. We were joking and fooling around for hours. When our legs were beginning to shake from jumping, we decided to take a break. The four of us exited the jumpy house with the fluorescent LEDs of streetlights glinting off our teeth. The boy pushed past me and hugged his mother’s legs with one arm strapped around them. He started to yank on her shirt and screamed, “Mommy, Mommy! Why does she talk so funny?” The lady calmly crouched down to his level and smiled at him, obviously amused as she replied, “Oh honey, they’re just from Scotland.” To this day, I don’t understand how someone could make such a bold statement about another person they don’t know. Instead of asking me, she assumed I wasn’t native and imposed her inaccurate certainty on her son. In that instance, she was so quick to label me. I’ve come to the realization that this need to label others is not enclosed to one person or one instance but constantly happens in daily life interactions.

People want to put differences into pre-labelled boxes. They ask, “Where are you from?” to relieve a need to identify someone’s history or background. Sometimes it is used to find similarities in themselves, but more often, it is used to pinpoint specific differences in others. When others meet me, they assume I have a unique history that is different from the general “us.” No, I’m not from Australia. No, I’m not from Britain, or Scotland for that matter. I am asked questions to confirm or deny my inclusion in “us.” Because I sound different, people have it in their minds that my lineage is something I need to tell them. I realized that this is what international students experience daily. It is my off tongue that makes me stick out, while international students simply integrate their home language into their speech. Students from all around the world are a part of the UMass Amherst community. Most come with English as their first language, while some do not. Those who fall into the latter category often have a noticeable accent that makes them stand out from “us.” Unlike me, international students have a unique history to back up their way of speech. They are constantly questioned on their ethnicity and familial background, which gets to be exhausting and frustrating, having to repeat themselves time and time again. If I or any other student wishes to disclose a part of their history, it will come up naturally in a conversation when they want it to. There is no need to ask for proof of a person’s history. Get to know someone through what they tell you, not what you ask.

My speech impediment simply gives me a glimpse of what it is like to be different from the majority. I am part of that “us,” yet I am treated time and time again as if I’m not. My voice should not define my identity or give someone a ticket to ask intrusive questions. As a society, we need to take our desire to label others out of our conversations, as this change is key to creating an inclusive world.

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