I’m not a particularly sensitive person. I can handle most noises, textures, and tastes. But there is one sound that I just cannot stand.
That’s the sound of “special voice.”
On her blog, Beth Ryan defines special voice perfectly. She calls it “a weird combination of firm-nasty-baby voice” often used on disabled people. Especially children or elderly, and especially people with cognitive disabilities.
There is something about special voice that triggers me. It’s not just the condescending nature of talking to disabled people differently than everyone else. There’s something else, a reaction I get when I hear it, that activates childhood memories of my own.
It took me a while to figure out why I get so triggered by special voice, until I remembered a certain blindness program I used to attend growing up. And while there were many good things about that program, some of their staff tended to resort to exactly that special tone when speaking to students, particularly when trying to get them to comply with requests.
I don’t recall being spoken to in special voice (though it was probably used on me at some point early in my life). I do recall witnessing special voice used with others, and its use often predicted a meltdown in the listener. Over time, I came to associate special voice with very negative emotional responses.
I like Beth’s use of the term “special voice” because it carries similar pejorative connotations to the term “special needs.” As Beth explains, special voice is more than just baby-talking or infantilizing, though that is part of it. There is also this tinge of disapproval, this “pre-emptive reprimand” as part of special voice, and it is often combined with over-prompting. It’s like treating someone not just like a child, but like an errant child, even before they’ve messed up. It is a tone that disregards the agency and autonomy of the listener. Too often, it then escalates to a full-on reprimand when the listener doesn’t behave in line with the wishes of the speaker.
Notably, special voice is not the same thing as using accessible speech to accommodate specific needs. For example, some listeners need to have things repeated, enunciated, or spoken in simplified vocabulary in order to optimize processing and comprehension. You can make these accommodations on a case-by-case basis, without infantilizing the listener.
I don’t think special voice is used deliberately. But our vocal tones can be a window into how we are feeling. If we feel anxious, stressed, or challenged by disabled people over whom we hold power, we may be inclined to use speech patterns that assert control rather than respect. If we expect someone to be difficult, or not to understand what we are saying, those expectations can come through in our verbal and nonverbal behavior.
If you think you may be guilty of special voice in your interactions with one or more disabled people, perhaps get some feedback from a trusted source. Perhaps you may even audio-record yourself (with the permission of your listener). I hate hearing my own recorded voice almost as much as I hate hearing special voice, but I do think this is a case where listening to a self-recording can be helpful, particularly if you work professionally with disabled people
If you interact with one or more disabled people regularly, you might consider an exercise. Think of one person in your life, past or present, who always made you feel loved, respected, and valued. This could be a parent or grandparent, another relative, a teacher, mentor, or friend. Really cement this person’s image in your mind’s eye and your mind’s ear. Think about things this person said to you to make you feel loved and respected, and the tone and body language they used. Then, in your interactions with disabled person(s), try to channel that person’s essence, mimic their demeanor as best you can. Try to help your child, student, client, peer, or other individual feel as loved and respected as you felt when interacting with this role model.
In other words, as Beth says: “Treat others how you would want to be treated.”