It’s National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month! Throughout July ACPA will share information to provide education and spread awareness on behalf of the one in 700 born with a cleft each year, and everyone with a craniofacial difference. We’ll also share stories we’ve received that we hope will inspire you. To kick off the month we are honored to share Hugh’s Story with you.

Douglas “Hugh” Gillard was born and raised in Canada and struggled with his cleft lip and palate differences, including a severe speech impediment. Despite these challenges, Hugh achieved success, both socially and in business, ultimately serving as President of three companies before retiring. He also authored his memoir, “What Did You Say? Memories on a Road Less Travelled” for cleft-related charities, including ACPA. We’ll share Hugh’s story in two parts, Part 1: The Early Years, and later Part II: The Adult Years.


Part I: The Early Years

For context, I was born with a unilateral cleft lip and palate in 1948 when plastic surgery was still in its infancy. Since then multifold advancements have occurred in treating cleft lip and palate; not just in surgery techniques but in speech therapy and counselling, which were non-existent when I was a child.

My first recollection that I was “different” took place when I was 5 years old. I was playing outside with my 4-year-old sister when our mother approached. I looked up at my mother and said something. She looked back down and asked my sister “What did he say?” to which my sister spoke, word for word, what I had just said. At that exact moment I knew I was different! I didn’t know how different. But certainly I was different!  Of course, it was also amazing how a little 4-year-old understood every word I said. We were buddies!

I attended a rural one-room school for First Grade, and it was perfect for a child like me. The local kids knew me, so no teasing or bullying occurred. Our teacher, who taught the entire school from First to Ninth Grade at once, was mature, understanding, caring and supportive. I thrived at school, even graduating First Grade Suma Cum Laude! It wasn’t that hard really – I was the only student in the class.

Second Grade was to be another matter, starting on the very first day. The one room school had closed and we were all bussed to a larger school in the nearby town. To me, everything was the exact opposite of the year previous. The teacher was young and inexperienced teacher, and the classroom of students were complete strangers to me. Like them though, I had to stand up and say my name. Without ever having tried saying my name before I instinctively knew that a disaster was unfolding. My pronunciation attempt came out sounding like Nudnass Niller, totally not understandable. The teacher repeatedly asked me my name. The third time she walked to my desk tapping a ruler on her open palm. She looked down at me and in a loud and angry tone said “I cannot understand you! Just my luck I get a kid who cannot even say his own name.” Also included in her outburst was a clear reference to my apparent lack of intelligence. After repeated attempts I sat down, folded my arms on the desk, put my head down and cried. My confidence was totally gone. It would take many years of one small step at a time to regain it back.

I passed Second Grade but only because she moved the problem on to Third Grade. Fortunately, all the students and teachers grew to know me. Although difficult for them, they became familiar with my cadence, tone and enunciation to the point that understanding me was at least passable. My first day of Third Grade was the exact opposite of Second Grade. When it came my turn to stand and state my name many in the class, in unison, called out “Douglas Gillard”. This time I smiled! A Spartacus moment!

Of course, I experienced the bullying and teasing that came with the territory. But by far the majority of teachers and students made every effort to include me. My Fifth-Grade teacher, Mr. Wager, was determined that I participate in our school Christmas Choir, struggled with what section to place me in. But he was determined that I belonged. It was a real challenge – my unique speech ruled out the Bass or Soprano sections. A Nasal section did not exist. So, he placed me right in the middle of the front row. Now, for the first time, the choir had a Nasal section! There I was, proudly standing with my fellow students singing Silent Night. Seeing Mom and Dad smiling in the audience made it extra special, for them as well. My confidence began to return that day and I will be forever grateful to Mr. Wager. A teacher can make such a difference to a child, good or bad.

My severe speech impediment continued to be my biggest challenge. I had had no speech therapy as it was non-existent at the time, or if it existed, it was at least two hundred miles from where I lived. Even later, when it was available, I was never aware of it as young adult. We didn’t even know to ask for help.

Ordering food at a restaurant was a real challenge. Ordering “eggs” was near impossible and equally frustrating for me and the waitress. Menus with food illustrations were my favorites! But despite my significant speech and facial differences, I was determined to live my life as if “I was normal”. This attitude arose not from some grand vision or dream but rather from my DNA. It was just my makeup. My parents were hard working ranchers, and I was never treated any differently than my three siblings. No favoritism requested, offered or given. Independence, working hard and creating one’s own entertainment was our norm.

From the devastating first day of school in Second Grade onward, my confidence and scholastic grades slowly improved. I started to develop strong friendships – an absolute necessity to overcoming the challenges. At 15 I gathered up enough nerve to ask a girl on my first date. To my total surprise and delight she said “Yes”.  As happy as I was though, little did I know that I would not date again for ten years! This long and devastating social gap was due in large part to our family relocating the next year and my having to start over again, the seemingly never-ending struggles with appearance and speech, and my lack of social maturity in general.

Moving far away and attending a new school is traumatic for all kids. A compounding factor for me was we moved mid-school year. The painful process of meeting students and teachers and getting them to know and understand me started all over again. But once again my “I’m normal too” personality carried the day as I made several friendships, some lasting to this day, over 50 years later. That was the good news. The bad news was when it came to the opposite sex.  Countless evenings were spent alone. I missed my entire teenage and young adult dating years.

Despite my challenges, I managed to graduate from high school. It was now time to fly solo and join the adult world. Deciding on one’s career path is a big deal for most graduates, with or without “differences”.  But it didn’t take long for me to rule out at least two career paths, starting with Air Traffic Controller. Imagine flying into O’Hare in a blinding snow storm and me being the one to verbally guide the plane in. Or a Bingo Caller calling out N36 and the whole room screaming “Bingo” at once. Chaos!

Ultimately I enrolled at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Business and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce Degree (Marketing) with dreams of a career, like any other student. Why marketing of all choices you ask? The answer lay, again, in my insistence on being normal in all aspects. Marketing involved people and despite my challenges I liked people. I also enjoyed the Marketing courses so why not me?

Nearing graduation I had my first interview for a permanent job. But what transpired during the job interview had a staggering similarity to my first day of second grade. My fourteen years of regaining confidence literally evaporated in minutes.

Read Part II: The Adult Years!