Finding their voice: Glenrose program helps trans, gender-diverse people speak the way they want

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Alberta program offers gender-affirming voice training'
Health Matters: Alberta program offers gender-affirming voice training
Health Matters June 9: Trans and gender-diverse people are finding a voice that matches how they see themselves, thanks to a program at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital. And as Su-Ling Goh reports, demand for the specialized speech therapy is growing. – Jun 9, 2022

They look like a man — but sound like a woman, or vice-versa: it’s one of the many very real challenges some transgender people face in their journey to living their most authentic life.

“We live in a world that’s not always the kindest place. We live in a world that’s still having quite a binary sense of gender, ” said Teresa Hardy, a speech language pathologist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton.

“There are expectations that society often holds us to when we’re communicating.

“If we don’t fit in that mould, then some people respond very negatively. And so some people, their safety is at risk.”

Hardy said some people can experience gender dysphoria or vocal dysphoria: discomfort or emotional distress associated with the misalignment between their voice communication and their sense of self.

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“It’s distress. So they might sometimes even feel like they need to engage in self-harm or suicide.”

Hardy is one of the specialists at the hospital’s Voice and Resonance Program, which helps trans and gender-diverse people find a voice that matches how they see themselves.

“How do you want to present yourself to the world? What would feel comfortable to you? And then I present targets to them,” Hardy said of working with her clients, explaining there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

“We explore those, and then different sounds, different mannerisms, and then they can decide what fits for them.”

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Parker Pothier, who identifies as a non-binary transgender person and uses they/them pronouns, began transitioning a few years ago as an adult.

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“I realized that the things I was doing to change how I looked and to change how I sounded, was bringing me a lot of euphoria with my gender. That was when I realized how much happier I could be,” they said.

The more they figured out their new identity, the happier and more motivated to work on their life goals they became, Pothier said.

Pothier works at 211, a provincial helpline and online database of Alberta’s community and social services.

They said they have experienced people calling them “ma’am” or assuming they are female, and in the moment, struggled with whether to correct the person or let it slide.

“If I’m taking 30 calls a day and it’s happening every single time, it’s really, really exhausting,” they said.

Pothier learned of the Glenrose speech program via a Facebook group. They talked about it with their family doctor, who then referred them to the program.

“Since my voice training that I’ve been doing here — even though my voice has been changing due to testosterone and hormone replacement therapy — I have more tools to be able to make my voice sound more darker and more masculine at-will kind of thing, you know?

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Hardy was one of the experts who worked with Pothier, assessing their voice and communication characteristics, including vocal pitch, resonance, intonation, loudness, voice quality and articulation.

“When I saw who I was going be working with and the level of expertise that she had, it really did surprise me that there was someone who cared enough like that, to be able to be providing the service,” Pothier said.

Left is Teresa Hardy, a speech language pathologist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, and right is patient Parker Pothier, in Edmonton, Alta. on June 9, 2022. Global News

Hardy was the University of Alberta’s first practitioner and researcher of gender voice training. She helps clients set goals and work towards the voice they want — not necessarily narrowing it down to being feminine or masculine.

“It’s like learning a musical instrument because we’re learning to use the voice or the instrument in a different way.”

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Hardy likened the process to learning to play the piano — no one sits down at the keys and can bang out Mozart on the first day.

“It takes practice. We’re also trying to change the brain — the pathways in the brain — to say, ‘Yeah, this is how I communicate now.’ So the more we practice, the more progress we make,” Hardy said.

The program itself isn’t new — gender-affirming voice and communication training has been available at the Glenrose for more than 20 years and the service is also available in Calgary — but more people are using it as awareness of its existence expands.

The therapy is publicly funded but the wait time is long. Over the past decade, the program has seen referrals increase from five per year to upwards of five per month, Alberta Health Services said.

Like most areas of health care, pandemic service disruptions have significantly impacted wait times for the speech program as well.

“We continue to look at how we provide services to be most efficient and accessible for all our patients. Wait times are currently in excess of one year for the Voice and Resonance Program at the Glenrose,” AHS senior communications advisor Sharman Hnatiuk said in a statement.

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The program receives referrals from a variety of practitioners, including family physicians, endocrinologists and psychiatrists. Training with patients can include a mix of individual and group sessions.

It took Pothier three-and-a-half years to get in, but they said it was worth the wait.

“It’s very important that we’re offering services like this and the people know about it,” Pothier said.

“For each trans person, each non-binary person, each queer person, their experience is so unique.

“To be able to have the power and control to tailor your experience for what works for you is extremely empowering.”

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Pothier said an unexpected result of being masculine-presenting is less verbal abuse from callers at work.

“People are less likely to be saying that I’m useless, calling me bad names, calling me the C-word and all those things that we would call women,” they said, adding their female co-workers regularly are called a bitch.

“They get called all these awful names and they get treated really poorly,” Pothier said.

“Almost as soon as I started noticing these changes in my voice that were more masculine, I noticed that change too — that I wasn’t enduring nearly as much abuse on the lines just for being a woman.

“It’s not trans-related, but it’s an interesting space of privilege I’ve moved into.”

Hardy said it’s rewarding to help people sound more like themselves and navigate a sometimes-difficult society.

“I’ve heard from numerous clients that doing this work kind of makes them feel like they have a bit of a shield against some of that marginalization, or (it) makes them feel a bit safer as they interact with the world.

“For some people, it can even be lifesaving. So that, in a nutshell, I think is why this work is really important.”

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The Voice and Resonance Program isn’t just for members of the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community seeking gender-affirming voice training: AHS said it sees patients with a variety of diagnoses, including patients who have had a stroke, those with oral cancer, multi-trauma (maxilla facial surgeries).

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