Saturday, August 26, 2000

Cancer claims voice, but not will to work

        When Beverlee Tague went to college, she had already attended 31 different schools throughout Europe and the United States.

        Her father, who was a military man, would coach her on the first day of school: “Just walk in like you are somebody, because you are. Stand up tall and make new friends.”

 For more information on voice disorders, visit the American Speech Language Hearing Association Web site at

        The advice served her well. At 65, Ms. Tague has success behind her and more to come. While raising three children, she operated an estate appraisal business and supervised 14 employees. She conducted appraisals, gave court testimony, directed seminars, and delivered lectures on antiques. Two years ago, she placed all that in the capable hands of her business partner, and is once again seeking employment.

        Beverlee Tague didn't quit working because she was bored or wanted to retire. She felt she could no longer conduct her business as she had for decades because she lost her voice.

        In 1987, Ms. Tague was treated for thyroid cancer. After surgery, radiation and frequent check-ups, she proceeded with life as usual until another surgery was required in 1998.

        She lost a vocal chord and now speaks in a whisper. Lecturing, testifying, negotiating on the telephone or in groups of people was no longer feasible. Still, Ms. Tague learned years ago to be flexible, and she is adapting her life to this new challenge.

        Her daughter, a Florida-based oncology nurse, tracked down a special telephone that magnifies the volume and adjusts the tone of her whisper to an audible level. Another handheld device amplifies her voice for face-to-face conversation.

        The American Speech Language Hearing Association estimates that from 3 percent to 9 percent of the American population has some sort of voice disorder, most frequently associated with vocal abuse or misuse. Tumors of the vocal tract affect 50,000 adults every year.

        The artificial voice associated with laryngectomy survivors is not an option for someone who has one remaining vocal chord. Since Ms. Tague is still able to speak, electronic communication devices are also not options.

        “People usually think I have laryngitis,” Ms. Tague explains. Indeed, she often simply answers yes to the question, rather than evoking unwanted sympathy.

        The limited vocalization, however, seems to be a permanent condition. Certainly, the loss of freedom to chat easily on the telephone, sing along with the radio, be heard by a friend across the table in a restaurant — all of these and many others are casual blessings taken for granted.

        Like many who have acquired disabilities in adulthood, she finds one of the most impenetrable barriers to be the lack of understanding from others. People feel awkward, she says, when she explains her disability. She prefers the company of family and friends who treat her as they always have, particularly her beloved six grandchildren who call her “Grandma Whisper.”

        To keep busy, she is working her way through the stacks of her local library — carrying home six to eight books at a time. Currently, she is working her way through French history.

        “I'm 65,” she says, “but my mind is fine.I don't care much for television.”

        Before the 30-year accumulation of knowledge in the estate appraisal and antique business, Ms. Tague worked as a proofreader. When her father, who became a professor at the University of Cincinnati, lost his sight, she combined her love of literature and love for him into the daily habit of reading aloud.

        What Ms. Tague wants is to find "meaningful' work to supplement her income and make use of her talents. So far, no one is interested in hiring a woman who can't shout across the room. Ridiculous perhaps, but true.

        She doesn't want cards and flowers. She wants to work and be useful. She whispers, but her message is loud and clear. While voice disorders are uncommon, Ms. Tague's experience as a person with a disability is recognized by millions: She has learned to adapt to her loss, and wants others to accept her as a whole human being.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:

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