Wanting to Be on TV Was the Push My Son Needed to Practice His Articulation
Sean was born with Down Syndrome. His struggle to speak has been a long, arduous journey — diagnosed with Apraxia of speech and a Phonological processing disorder due to being deaf in his right ear and hearing loss in his left ear — he couldn’t even hear sounds the right way from the beginning.
As a baby, we taught Sean sign language — uncertain whether he would ever speak, or be able to speak clearly enough for anyone to understand his words.
Speech therapy and Occupational therapy for oral-motor exercises were a constant reality for Sean. A palate expander for a high and narrow palate followed by three rounds of braces landed Sean with articulation that our family and close friends could decipher; but I still had to translate everything he said for strangers because they couldn’t understand his words. I likened it to listening to a person with a foreign accent. After a while, you learn the ways they pronounce words and can understand better their patterns of speech. We joked that Sean spoke his own language; we said he spoke “Seanese.“
Sean wanted to be on Television from a young age. He performed onstage starting at age 3 in singing and dancing groups, church and school choirs. He took drama class in intermediate school and unfortunately the high school drama teacher wouldn’t give the recommendation that Sean needed to continue past Drama 1 to Drama 2 or Musical Theater classes. But that didn’t dissuade Sean. After high school, he enrolled in community college classes and continued honing his craft. But his articulation continued to be a struggle.
When he was 18, I drove him to an audition for a new sitcom being produced by Ryan Murphy. The lines were hysterical –especially coming from someone with Down syndrome. But as he delivered the lines — his timing and expressions spot on — I couldn’t even decipher what he was saying, so I knew the casting director couldn’t understand him either.
On the drive home, Sean was confident he would be cast in the role. I had to be honest with him, “I don’t think so. I couldn’t understand your words, and if I couldn’t understand them, I know they couldn’t, and the scene is way too funny for the audience to not be able to understand what you are saying.”
Sean thought silently for a few minutes then asked, “Will you help me?”
From that day on he would check in after a lengthy sentence, “Was my speech clear? Did you understand me?”
Sean allowed his father and me to repeat and correct his mispronunciations. These exercises were very meaningful for Sean, he wanted to work hard to reach his goal of being on TV, and this was more significant than the drills of speech therapy. Because of verbal Apraxia, Sean needs to hear any new words around 100 times before he can properly imitate them. This is why he called the dice game “Craps,” “Cramps.” And his “HUD Voucher,” “Head Basher.”
Sean’s hard work paid off and his dream of being on TV came true when he charmed the cute young women who were the casting directors for “Born This Way” on A&E.
Sean continues to work on his articulation. And when we understand him, he is the funniest person I’ve ever met. Now with his new business, others can enjoy his comedic comments embossed on t-shirts, mugs, hats and bags. Many of the sayings aren’t new to the Urban English language dictionary. But when Sean delivers them, I can’t help but laugh. And I hope it isn’t lost on you that less than five years ago he was unintelligible, and today we celebrate his speech by immortalizing it on swag.
Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from Sean, the author’s son.
Learn more at Seanese.com.
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