March 2024

Finding my voice is an ongoing journey

Finding my voice in order to help my fellow humans is an ongoing journey which takes courage, compassion and hope, attributes which I do not automatically possess, writes Mary Rowan Highfield.

Each morning and afternoon for the past 15 years, a young man has boarded the same peak-hour train as me. Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, he lacks any verbal communication skills whatsoever.

Now in his early 20s, his entire lifetime has been spent in a bubble of non-communication; it is not total silence, for he has the facility to utter incoherent sounds, sometimes gently, and, at other times, loudly and aggressively. For his entire lifetime, therefore, he has had, literally, no voice, nor is he ever likely to.

This is just one example of a person in our society who does not have a voice. Throughout history, many individuals or groups of people, though they possess the ability to speak, still have no voice; overwhelmingly, they are people without power, wealth or status.

Comprising, but not limited to, the following: the unborn, incarcerated people, elderly people, children, minorities, oppressed people, mentally ill people, Indigenous people, refugees, poor people, uneducated people, illiterate people, migrants and victims of human trafficking or domestic violence; as a result of their abject powerlessness they have, literally, no voice in a world obsessed with power.

Proponents of power, throughout the ages, have had no desire to relinquish their privileged positions and so it is in the world of meta-modernism of the 21st Century.

Despite being in full view of society, many of these individuals and groups lead an existence which is marginalised, because, literally or figuratively, they have no voice. Finding my voice in order to help my fellow humans is an ongoing journey which takes courage, compassion and hope, attributes which I do not automatically possess.

However, over the years, I have come to realise that because I have been gifted with a voice, it is imperative to use my gift in whichever way is most effective to speak up for people like the young man I described and for countless others dwelling in the perpetual silence, frustration, loneliness and despair of a voiceless existence.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a voice is the sound produced in a person’s larynx and uttered by the mouth through speech or song. It is a particular opinion or attitude expressed.

Those of us who have been blessed with a voice are aware of its tremendous power, either for good or evil. There are numerous instances in life where people are searching for a voice because it is not only an empowering thing, but also a truly liberating experience. To be able to communicate with others, either in a literal or figurative way, is to have one of the greatest gifts available to us as human beings.

Sometimes, having a voice to communicate with others is not related to the spoken word; nonverbal, a voice can be expressed in many forms such as by the written word, in art, music, films, architecture, gestures, actions and, at times, even silence. For example, donating to organisations which assist victims of domestic violence or human trafficking is a way where finding my voice has not been associated with the verbal example, but, in many instances, it is just as effective, if not more so. Finding my voice has not occurred in a single moment of time, therefore, but has been an ongoing process.

In childhood, finding my voice began through the prescient encouragement of my father. During World War II, he had first-hand experience of having no voice as a prisoner-of-war of Germany for 18 months.

This setback did not deter him in life and when I was born among six male siblings, it was my father who encouraged me to speak out against injustice and any form of discrimination aimed at me specifically because of my gender. My father recognised intuitively that the voice of a female was no less important or to be less heeded than the voice of any male in a patriarchal society.

Another example which encouraged me in finding my voice was when I came across the work of a Sister of the Good Samaritan who wrote and attained her PhD with a thesis that examined the institutional abuse of children within the Catholic Church by some of its priests.

This highly intelligent and articulate woman, through her painstaking research, showed me how a voice for the voiceless children who had been abused within the Church was paramount to the recognition by authorities resulting in Prime Minister Gillard’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This is yet another example of encouragement in finding my own voice to speak up against evil of any kind, and especially evil against the most vulnerable, our children.

Children, who born with the power of speech, are an absolute delight for parents who hear the first sounds emanating from their baby’s lips. To some, this may seem an insignificant phase in a parent’s journey with their child, but it is a milestone most parents remember vividly. The joyousness of this experience, however, is not shared by a considerable percentage of Australians.

For example, recent statistics from Speech Pathology Australia, the peak body representing professional speech therapists, estimates that 1.1 million Australians have a communication disability. This disability can range from a slight speech impediment to having no voice at all.

Finding my voice to instil confidence in instances where, through no fault of their own, people find communication or speech difficult, for example, a child struggling to read or pronounce the written word, is an area where it is incumbent on me to continue to remain aware and to assist.

This awareness extended to the 2023 referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament when the Australian people were asked to decide whether the Indigenous people of this land should have their collective Voice enshrined in the Constitution. Had the referendum not been defeated, the Voice would have been a very powerful, beneficial asset, particularly to those Indigenous people whose voices to date have been silenced or neglected.

Potentially providing outcomes which will address severe disadvantages and discrimination against my fellow Australians, it is incumbent on me, yet again, in finding my voice to promote fairness and justice which has been lacking for so many for so long.

However, in searching for and finding my voice, it is clear it does not have to be associated, always, with significant issues, such as the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Many voices in our society suffer daily because of lack of recognition and assistance, remaining ignored and unheard; many voices remain stifled; many voices, like the young man on the train’s voice, remain silent throughout their entire lives.

But even in the most seemingly mundane circumstances, finding my voice whenever there are instances of injustice, oppression, violence, discrimination, disability or harm threatening those individuals and groups in society who are unable to speak for themselves, shall be something I shall continue to strive for, for the remainder of my life.


Mary Rowan Highfield

My lifelong passion for writing began in primary school and has continued throughout the years. Writing is one of the greatest ways to convey my thoughts, aspirations, hopes and dreams, not only of the past, but also of the future.

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