Disability and public speaking: overcoming the fear

Hi, I’m Jennie and I’m new to Disability Horizons! I’m 24 and have Cerebral Palsy, which affects all four limbs and my speech. Like many of you out there, though, I don’t let my disability stop me from doing anything. That includes joining my local Toastmasters club, which is part of a global organisation that focuses on helping individuals to develop communication and leadership skills.

I’d always been terrified of public speaking, of having to present to my class at school or university. The moment I started to speak I could hear my speech impairment. For those who don’t have this problem, on a day-to-day basis I sound as clear to myself as anybody else does to me, but as soon as I’ve got to make the effort to speak clearly I can hear it, or rather I used to hear it…

I went along to my first Toastmasters meeting feeling very nervous – what would people think of me turning up to a public speaking club? I needn’t have worried though, as everyone was so welcoming. I even surprised myself at that first meeting by going up and speaking! I didn’t have to, I just decided on the spot to give it a go. When you go along to your first meeting it’s entirely up to you whether you speak or not – some people get stuck in straight away while others prefer to see how it all works before putting themselves forward.

After a couple more meetings I decided to join – I knew public speaking would be a challenge but I wanted to see how far I could get with it. I did my first prepared speech sitting on a chair at the front, clutching my iPad and feeling extremely self-conscious. I think what surprised me the most about those first couple of speeches was that people actually understood what I was saying! This gave me great confidence and empowered me to carry on.

When you join Toastmasters you receive a manual, the ‘Competent Communicator’, which consists of ten speaking projects, each focusing on a different public speaking skill such as body language and vocal variety. I flew through the first three in four months and by the fourth project had replaced the chair with a bar stool. I use a wheelchair when out and about but walk around my flat or when not having to go very far so I assumed I’d always deliver speeches from a chair because it felt safer. However, I soon realised that by exploring other options I could engage with my audience in a different way. The bar stool, for example, made me higher and more visible to my audience.

People have told me that the audience actively lean in when I speak because they have to work harder to catch what I’m saying. In this respect my speech impairment works in my favour as people are more focused on what I’m saying, so take away more of my message. Even listening to speakers who don’t have a disability I’ve found that words and the way they are spoken is still the most powerful way to engage the audience.

So where am I now on my Toastmasters journey? I’m a member of two clubs, I’ve done six speeches from the manual and my goal is to complete all 10 by the end of the year. I’ve won Best Speaker (of the evening) four times and I’ve begun to develop speaking techniques I never considered working on.

For example, the fifth project in the manual focuses on body language, which encouraged me to consider how I could use movement and gestures in my speeches. I decided to make the most of this project, knowing that Toastmasters is a safe environment to try things out and see what works for you, and delivered my speech standing up and moving around the stage. It worked really well and as a result I now deliver all of my speeches like this.

For disabled people I think this safe space is crucial. It gives us the perfect opportunity to try out different things to find out what works, what doesn’t and to explore how we can make the best use of various speaking techniques. I’ve found that there’s no one correct way to deliver a speech, especially when you have a disability, so there’s plenty of room for imagination!

Once you have completed your Competent Communicator manual there are many others to choose from such as storytelling, humorous speaking and speaking to inform. These give you the opportunity to hone your skills in various types of public speaking so you can always pull out the right speech for the occasion!

Apart from giving prepared speeches there are many other speaking roles involved in each meeting which help you develop as a leader. Roles include being a speech evaluator, running the impromptu speaking part of the evening and running a meeting, all of which I have done. These roles help you develop a wide range of leadership skills such as listening, critical thinking and organising your time effectively. Similar to the Competent Communicator manual there is also a Competent Leadership manual which you can use to track your progress as you take on the different roles.

All of these roles have empowered me to get more involved in Toastmasters meetings, stepping outside my comfort zone to take on more challenging tasks. I’ve found that taking on a role really enhances my experience of a meeting and gives me another opportunity to speak. No matter how nervous you are to begin with, these regular opportunities build your confidence one step at a time. At Toastmasters everyone has been where you’re standing, whatever role you’re doing, so you’re not expected to give a polished performance first time. Everyone gets evaluated, not just those who have given a prepared speech, so you will always get feedback on what you’ve done well and what you could improve on next time. By talking to your evaluator beforehand you can both ensure that any difficulties you may have because of your disability are taken into consideration so that helpful suggestions can be made.

I’ve realised now that after just over a year since joining Toastmasters I don’t hear my speech impairment anymore because I’m too focused on what I’m saying and how I’m delivering my speech. I still get nervous, just like everybody else does, but it’s not about whether people will understand me anymore, or if they’ll wonder what I’m doing up there, it’s only about how well I can meet the objectives for the project or role I’m doing.

So what are my top tips for public speaking when you have a speech impairment or any other disability?

  1. Have a go and keep having a go – it only gets easier!
  2. Don’t worry about what people will think of you, as a disabled person, taking on public speaking. Focus on the task. If you feel good about what you’re talking about your audience will too. Your confidence will show through.
  3. Explore different ways of delivering speeches to see what works best for you.
  4. Talk to people before you speak so they know what your requirements are. Be open about what you can and can’t do so you can get constructive feedback.
  5. Don’t be afraid to talk about topics related to disability but don’t be afraid to talk about other things too.

Oh, and don’t forget, most people have a fear of public speaking so they are probably just as nervous as you!

Here’s Toastmasters International’s website. Click here to find your local club.

By Jennie Goodrum

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One Comment

  1. I have had the pleasure of hearing Jennie speak at Toastmasters on several occasions. Each time I have left the meeting inspired, challenged and privileged to be part of such a great organisation. I know some people are uncomfortable about the use of the word “inspirational” but every time Jennie stands in front of the audience and delivers a speech or leads the meeting with passion, conviction and growing confidence – I am forced to confront my own fears, thoughts and limiting beliefs.

    If the thought of speaking in public fills you with fear and apprehension take a leaf from Jennie’s book. Pop along to your local friendly and supportive Toastmasters club and give it a go. You will be glad you did.

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