Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a childhood disability that affects the motor control centers of the brain. It is not progressive, not contagious, has no effect on sensation, is not specifically associated with lower I.Q., and – for absolutely sure – is not terminal.
Parade Magazine needed to understand this better when, in their March 9, 2008 issue, they referred to actor Chris Cooper and his wife as having had a child who “died of cerebral palsy.”
For some CP is barely noticeable as a limp or a mild speech impairment. For others, muscle spasticity can be so significant that walking, manual dexterity, and speech are all but impossible.
In the past people with significant CP were assumed to be “mentally deficient,” such as someone like Neil Jacobson, who has spasticity and affected speech from CP. Neil retired after 29 years at Wells Fargo Bank, ending his career as a Sr. Vice President for Information Technology. Neil is also a widely-respected disability advocate.
Not so long ago he would have been parked in an institution. That would have made it a lot harder for him to achieve his good marriage with Denise (a woman also with CP) and their success raising a son together. (Check out Denise Sherer Jacobson’s excellent memoir, “The Question of David”.)
Two important etiquette points for interacting with people with impaired speech: 1. Don’t pretend you understand (they’d rather repeat themselves in the interest of being heard); and 2. Don’t try to complete their sentences for them (they get to speak for themselves, and you’re likely to get it wrong anyway).
Technology (and the law) have expanded their communication options. The Speech To Speech National Relay Service (required in Section 508 of the Rehab Act) allows people with CP to make phone calls through operators who are trained in understanding their speech, who then voice their speech to the call recipient on the other end.
Augmentative Speech technology allows them to speak through a computer. These tools have come way down in price, and are available on smartphones and tablets.
When you get some experience with people with “SP Speech” you develop an ear for it.
In my personal experience, I find that being with people with impaired speech helps me relax, because what matters most is to just allow them the time they need to communicate — and I certainly want to hear what they have to say.
I also find that, exactly because there is some effort involved in speaking, and because they might be misunderstood, people with CP will often pause before speaking. In other words, they think before they speak. Oh, if only everyone…!