Children Go Silent for Day Without Speech
The little girl’s pigtails bobbed furiously as she pointed to the whiteboard in her other hand and wrote down the answer. Other students ran to the front of the classroom to see what she was writing on her board, peering curiously over her shoulder at her scribbles. Waving her arms up and down was the final clue needed before everyone quickly jotted down the answer: a bird.
A casual observer might call it a strange game of charades, but their silence – or more accurately their lack of words – is far more purposeful than one would guess.
These children are participating in Day Without Speech (DWS), a campaign to raise awareness about those struggling with speech and swallowing disorders.
Led by OIC Cambodia, a Phnom Penh-based NGO working to make speech therapy available to those who need it, the campaign has flourished, with schools and banks as well as individuals taking up the cause in recent months.
Weh Yeoh, managing director of OIC, said the idea was sparked almost three and half years ago by a friend who told him that it might be interesting to give up speaking for a day to get a glimpse of what those with speech disorders go through.
Since then, they have enlisted the help of schools across Australia and locally in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, and have plans to further expand the campaign in the future. Although speech is not allowed, participants can write down what they need to say.
The events have had profound effects on those who have tried it for a variety of reasons, Mr. Yeoh said.
“[Students] learn about inclusion more broadly, so it’s not just kids who might have communication disorders but all different types of kids, which helps with bullying. Another thing is learning about Cambodia and people who may be less privileged,” he told Khmer Times.
“Day Without Speech in Australia has grown so quickly, and the uptake is so high because it’s such a good experience for kids.”
OIC has raised almost $30,000 since the campaign began, and the success has many of its own members itching for a shot at the day-long challenge.
Mr. Yeoh recently tried himself and was immediately flooded with insights into how people with speech difficulties cope.
“I have a whole new understanding and respect for people who have communication difficulties day to day,” he said. “I knew I would be frustrated, but I was surprised how quickly I became frustrated. My two friends who knew I was doing this decided to just speak to each other, and they even began to speak about me in front of me.
“It wasn’t anything malicious but it was just simply, they knew that to engage with me would take so much more effort. Frustration, isolation, helplessness, these were the main emotions that I felt which were negative. But then again, it wasn’t all negative.”
After meeting a coworker for lunch, who was also doing the challenge, he suddenly felt at ease, knowing they would not judge him for not speaking, and understood what they were both going through.
To his surprise, she was the person he communicated with better than anyone that day, despite lacking the tools of the spoken word.
Sam Kendall, fund-raising development manager at OIC, upped the ante for his own attempt, by keeping silent for 48 hours. What was most eye-opening for him was the need to prepare himself before any human interaction in case it was with someone who did not understand or was not supportive.
“I did a lot more preparation. Normally I don’t think of five different ways I might need to signal to a tuk-tuk where I need to go, and I may not always go out of my way to make sure I have exact change to pay, but when I couldn’t speak I spent a lot more time pre-planning interactions as simple as a tuk-tuk ride or other possible interactions with people,” he said.
“I was always nervous that if I didn’t have a few plans I might not be able to accomplish what I wanted to.”
He added that while he saw a number of parallels between the challenge for adults and for schoolchildren, the two experiences did differ because of the structure afforded to students.
“For adults it is more about self-education. Adults have to think about: what were they frustrated by? How can they change their own actions in relation to those frustrations going forward?” he told Khmer Times.
“The Day Without Speech in schools is more structured. There are lesson plans that teachers can use and a debrief that the students get so that they can think more widely about what they’ve just experienced.
“Everyone has a positive experience, but they take something different from that experience.”
And that structure was integral for students at International School of Singapore (ISS) in Phnom Penh, who had their kids try the challenge last week. Melissa Close, principal of the school, said students – between the ages of four and nine – took to the challenge eagerly.
“We really want to reach out to disadvantaged kids that are like them and support them. So it’s nice to educate and teach our kids how to self-discipline by not speaking, because they’re very active. They like to talk,” she said.
“It’s good for them to motivate themselves and do something that is purposeful.”
Preparation for the day took about two weeks, and involved teachers explaining the challenge and working with children to understand why not speaking would be important on that day. Even the teachers went silent.
For about 10 minutes each day leading up to the Day Without Speech, they went silent before the day’s classes.
“The teachers were reluctant at first because we didn’t think the students could do it. So for them to go through with it and pull this off is really impressive. I’m so proud of them,” Ms. Close said.
While the event does not capture the totality of the experience of those with speech issues – OIC fully acknowledges that not being able to speak at all is slightly different than being able to communicate but in a different way than your peers – it does give those who partake in it a taste of the daily uphill climb many people face.
“[A stutterer] once told me that you have a certain number of words that you can get out, simply because it will take too long. So there are all these words and thoughts that are bottled up inside because you can’t write that fast,” Mr. Yeoh said.
“Communication is the basis for almost everything we do. Particularly if you’re ambitious and high-functioning, it would be so frustrating. To keep on going out and facing mixed reactions from people but to keep on going back, that takes a lot of courage.
“We take it for granted, and that’s why I think this is really good.”
A teacher at International School of Singapore (ISS) in Phnom Penh gestures during a Day Without Speech. KT/Jonathan Greig
Managing director of OIC Weh Yeoh holds up special cards for the Day Without Speech event. KT/Jonathan Greig
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