Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman Has Speech and Auditory Processing Disorders—Here’s What That Means

Plus, how she overcame them to deliver her moving poem, "The Hill We Climb."

Amanda Gorman became a household name on Wednesday after she read her poem, "The Hill We Climb," during President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris's inauguration ceremonies.

Gorman is the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate and, at 22, became the youngest-ever inaugural poet. Her name started trending on Twitter soon after she read her poem, with everyone—including people like Oprah, Barack Obama, and Lin Manuel—praising Gorman for her powerful words.

But while Gorman's poem was performed flawlessly, she told CNN on Wednesday that it required a lot of practice. Gorman has a speech disorder and auditory processing disorder that make it difficult for her to accurately pronounce and hear certain sounds.

Gorman shared that she struggles in particular to pronounce the letter "R." So, to practice, she listened to "Aaron Burr, Sir" from the musical Hamilton and tried to keep up with it. "I would say, if I can train myself to do this song, then I can train myself to say this letter," she said.

Gorman said that she was unable to even pronounce the letter "R" until two or three years ago, adding, "even to this day sometimes I struggle with it, which is difficult when you have a poem in which you say 'rise' like five times."

This isn't the first time Gorman has spoken about her difficulty with certain sounds. She told Understood in 2018 that she and her twin sister were born prematurely, which may have lead to her hearing and speech difficulties. Gorman was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder in kindergarten, and learned to read later than other children. She also has speech articulation issues.

"The voice I'm hearing aloud can't pronounce Rs, can't pronounce 'sh.' It kind of sounds a bit garbled," Gorman said on Today in 2018.

Here's what you need to know about both speech and auditory processing disorders.

What is a speech disorder, exactly?

A speech disorder is a condition in which someone has issues creating or forming the speech sounds they need to communicate with others, per MedlinePlus, a resource of the US National Library of Medicine.

Speech disorders are typically caused by one of the following:

  • Genetic abnormalities
  • Emotional stress
  • Any trauma to the brain or an infection

An articulation disorder, which also falls under speech disorders, is when someone is not able to pronounce certain sounds clearly, like consistently distorting "R," "L," or "S" sounds, MedlinePlus says. These changes may make it difficult for people to understand what the person is saying.

Speech disorders often don't show up until a child is older, Michael Cohen, MD, director of the Multidisciplinary Pediatric Hearing Loss Clinic at Mass Eye and Ear and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, tells Health. "As speech develops in infants and children, we gradually make sounds of increasing complexity," he explains. "Simple sounds like 'ba' and 'ma' are typically the first to emerge. More complex sounds like 'R' and 'L' and 'Th' are harder to say and often don't develop until five to six year of age."

But, Dr. Cohen says, "Some people do not learn to articulate these sounds naturally and require speech therapy to help with this."

And what is an auditory processing disorder?

An auditory processing disorder, also known as a central auditory processing disorder, is a condition that causes people to have trouble making sense of the sounds around them, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

People with an auditory processing disorder have difficulty understanding certain sounds because their ears and brains don't fully coordinate—something interferes with the way the brain recognizes and interprets sounds, according to KidsHealth from the Nemours Foundation. Auditory processing disorders aren't common, but they happen enough: About 5% of school-aged children have the condition, per Nemours.

With auditory processing disorders someone may "test normally on a standard hearing test but there is perceived difficulty hearing in certain environments, particularly noisy or busy environments," Dr. Cohen says. "People with auditory processing disorders can have a hard time hearing in a noisy place, can confuse words for similar sounding words, and can have difficulty paying attention in complex listening environments," he adds.

How are these conditions treated?

Treatment for an articulation disorder largely involves speech therapy, Dr. Cohen says. During therapy, a patient may be asked to repetitively work on a particular word or sound until they're able to use it in conversation, or to work on several sounds at once for a less intensive therapy, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Speech language therapy can also help with an auditory processing disorder, along with assisted listening devices, Dr. Cohen says. That can include the use of a frequency modulation system, which is a type of assistive listening device that reduces background noise and makes a speaker's voice louder so a child can understand it. People with an auditory processing disorder will typically use a frequency modulation system along with speech language therapy to help develop speaking and hearing skills, Nemours says. Other techniques can help to create an optimal acoustic environment like reducing background noise with carpeting, using felt covers on hard chairs, and try to remove extra noises from a room, Dr. Cohen says.

It's possible for people to overcome both conditions, but it takes work. "Proper therapy, accommodations, and teacher, family, and peer awareness can be very helpful for people with these problems," Dr. Cohen says. Gorman is proof. "I hear this strong, self-assured voice when I am reading this simple text, and what that told me is the power of your inner voice over that which people might hear with their ears," she told Today. "The only thing that can impede me is myself."

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