What are you without a voice? Story of Roger Ebert

I’m here as a man who wants to communicate” – Roger Ebert, TED, March 2011

Those words were spoken by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, in a way. Maybe you saw the TED speech. Maybe you have long known about Roger Ebert’s life story. Maybe not. If you have not, see it here now. It will brighten your Monday.

TED is full of moving speeches given by shockingly eloquent speakers. This is no different. Except that Roger Ebert can no longer speak. His words were spoken by his wife Chaz, two friends John Hunter and Dr. Dean Ornish and Roger’s favourite computer voice Alex.

roger ebert

In 2006, surgeries for cancer took away Ebert’s ability to speak, and today he is forced into a virtual world where a computer does some of the living for him. Through his MacBook Pro, Ebert has found a way to continue to communicate and has escaped the silence that would have been his only option without today’s technology.

Ebert is a prolific writer. He continues to talk passionately to the world through his keyboard. On facebook, twitter and via his blog journal his voice is ‘normal’ and far more articulate than most. Idle chatter does not exist in his world, rather every word he types or speaks has meaning. He has a greater respect for language than most of the verbose world.

“What you see is not all you get”, types Ebert. He knows that most people have little patience with his speaking difficulties and that most people look away from illness. Yet he remains committed to connecting with his audience. At the end of the talk, he tells a joke through his ‘voice’ Alex. And it works, a belly laugh rolls forward from the audience. He explains how important it was for him to find a digital voice that could muster the right timing and inflection to tell a joke. He looks proud of the reaction.

Due to the missing sections of his jaw and the lack of engineering behind his face, Ebert perpetually smiles. Only his eye’s can register the emotion he feels. Watching them closely in the talk they once flashed concern for his wife but they largely remained joyful, twinkling as he acted out the words that were being read for him. He never looks like a man who feels sorry for himself. I sense that he doesn’t want our pity. Who does?

roger ebert

Ebert, before he was diagnosed with cancer, giving his trademark two thumbs up

Towards the start of his speech he says, “The act of speaking, or not speaking, is tied so indelibly to one’s identity”. Without a voice the written word has become central to Ebert’s way of living. He has a readership of thousands and thoroughly encourages online debate. His inner monologue has become public knowledge in a way that it might not have become otherwise. He has become a product of his ‘condition’ but not a victim of it.

My admiration is boundless.

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