As National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month continues, we are honored to share with you Hugh’s Story Part II: The Adult Years. If you missed Part I: The Early Years you can read it here.


Part II: The Adult Years

There’s nothing like a rude awakening from time to time to remind oneself that past success is not an automatic ticket to future success! I encountered an experience much the same as my first experience in second grade.

In 1972 neither the internet nor social media existed. Companies seeking to hire new university graduates most often posted position openings on walls of the faculty office. The competition for the best jobs was very intense. Such was the case with a multi-national oil corporation seeking Business (Marketing) graduates. “Applicants must possess a degree in Marketing. Oil and gas work experience an asset.” Given my Marketing Degree, good marks and oilfield experience (summer jobs), I applied.

Shortly an envelope arrived with the corporate logo boldly stamped on the upper left corner. My heart raced as I opened it. It was like an Academy Award moment before the announcement of the winner. Good news. I had been selected as one of three candidates at the University of Calgary, and one of twelve students across Canada to be interviewed.

Upon finding and then nervously entering the interview room, I observed two older gentlemen (anyone over forty looked seriously old back then) sitting behind a table. Both stood up, shook my hand, and introduced themselves. I introduced myself and took a seat as instructed. After a few seconds of pause, the older of the two said, “What did you say?” I again replied, “Douglas Gillard.” “So, we understand you’re interested in our marketing position” to which I indicated yes. There was yet another pause – seconds seemed like minutes. The two gentlemen exchanged eye contact and then said, “Well, we’re sorry, but this interview is over.” Thinking I had heard incorrectly, I asked, “What was that?” “This interview is over” they replied. Totally shocked I asked why. They said, “There’s no way you can work in Marketing given the way you talk. People won’t understand you and you need to be able to communicate.”

And, with that, the shortest interview ever was over. It lasted no more than ninety seconds. Without a single question about my background or aspirations they decided that I was not qualified. Nothing too complicated or thought provoking. If you talked differently, you simply didn’t qualify. Everything I had worked for and the optimism I had built up since Second Grade simply evaporated in a matter of seconds. It was my very own personal Armageddon. This experience would revisit me for years to come, against which I would measure my career progress.

Clearly, any thoughts of a career in marketing had to be put on hold, maybe indefinitely. But I needed a start in business somewhere. Best to take a detour until at least I got a foothold in an organization that eventually might lead to a marketing position. Long story short, Ashland Oil, the company that I worked for during the summer months, hired me as a junior Accounting Clerk. It was the total opposite of Marketing. In the movie business they might call it a ‘non-speaking role’. Nevertheless, I have always been grateful they gave me the opportunity to prove myself.

Growing a career with a speech impediment was analogous to starting 20 meters behind the starting line of a 100 meter race. For a variety of reasons, including working very hard, I did well in Accounting and was promoted multiple times. Starting almost on day one though, I looked for a way out of Accounting to another area in the company – not just in Marketing, but to other departments that appealed to me. Early on I was very close to a transfer and had even been recommended for the position by management. Sadly, at the last minute the Vice President overruled his managers and rejected my transfer. Despite his much greater senior position than mine I brazenly sought him out and asked why. His reason: my speech impediment. Job discrimination and being turned down for positions were becoming the norm for me.

It was not only my career that was limited. I still had not dated since my first date almost ten years earlier. I then became determined to do something about it. It was time for self-help, starting with changing which first name to go by (Hugh instead of Douglas) and the pronunciation of my last name. I was tired of constantly having to spell my name out. My priority was to see if surgery advancements could improve my looks. Long story short, Dr. Follow, a Plastic Surgeon completely redid my lip scar making it more zig zag than straight down and significantly reduced the size of my lower lip. I was pleased with the improvements, but it was what else he did that ultimately, and literally, changed my life. Upon hearing me speak he said “I’d rather be born deaf than with a speech impediment. When people hear you talk they think you’re not intelligent”. At long last I met someone who knew my challenges. It is a common and terrible false impression that speech afflicted people face. He managed to pull strings at a very high level in the Children’s Hospital and had me see the newly formed Cleft Palate team. They made an exception for me – I was their only adult. I was 27 years old and for the first time, I was to take speech therapy. I didn’t know it even existed. Although perfection was not achievable my speech did improve. Dr. Follow literally changed my life!

Although at times my speech impediment was incredibly frustrating I learned long ago to accept my lot in life and make the best of it. Rarely does a day go by that I’m not misunderstood. Maintaining a sense of self-deprecating humor was a key to overcoming the challenges. As Readers Digest put it “Laughter is the Best Medicine”. Not long ago I sat at a counter at a diner to have breakfast. The waiter came and took my order. I also noticed that I had no fork or knife so I politely asked “Could you also please bring me some utensils?’ He then gave me that puzzled “What did you say?” look that I’ve seen a thousand times, and walked away. A couple of minutes later he returned – with a pencil! He thought I had said pencil, not utensils. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. It was very funny moment.

With facial surgery and months of speech therapy behind me my confidence soared. My time had arrived! First up was to start dating. After a few starts and stops including getting badly hurt (like normal people) I was very active and much happier. I had a lot of ground to catch up on with the opposite sex but it was fun trying. Ultimately I met and married Rosie who came with a bonus of two daughters, who in turn blessed us with five grandchildren. This year we celebrate our 40th anniversary. Now that’s success!

Later I joined a different company, still in accounting, but confident that I would have the opportunity to branch out, which I did. Eventually I was offered a position in Marketing, fifteen years after graduating. Further changes (in career paths and companies) culminated in my serving as President of a Marketing company. And how ironic it was! The second largest shareholder of the company was none other than the same company who, some 20 year earlier, declared during my first interview that I would never make it in Marketing. They in fact led the shareholders push to have me appointed President and CEO. Ultimately I headed up three companies and served on multiple corporate and not-for-profit boards of directors.

I reflect back on my life and career with pride that I took the road less travelled and achieved success, both socially and in business. After retirement I authored a memoir “What Did You Say?” with 100% of gross sales donated to cleft related charities including ACPA, Magical Moments Foundation and Operation Rainbow Canada. The memoir has led to multiple speaking engagements throughout North America to parents, doctors, speech pathologists, associations and others. I will always be most grateful to Dr. Richard Kirschner and Dr. Adriane Baylis, past and current ACPA Presidents, for starting me down a new path by inviting me to give a keynote address at a conference. It provided me the opportunity to inspire or inform others about the challenges that cleft affected individuals face. Telling the cleft story from the other side ultimately became my second calling in life! Ariel Stachel, an immigrant from Syria, won a 2018 Tony Award on Broadway. In his acceptance speech Ariel said “Your biggest obstacle may turn into your purpose”. Well said Ariel! It certainly did for me!

I am often asked two questions. “Has society changed in dealing with cleft stigmas?” and “What advice do you have for others with a speech impediment?” Regarding the stigma of facial differences I believe society has moved miles in being more accepting of such differences. There are football players, actors, corporate CEO’s to name just a few who achieved great success despite the cleft lip scars. But they had no speech impediment. Sadly, society attitudes have little changed when it comes to speech impediment stigma. To this, I often answer with another question. “Who do you know of in politics, high government circles, leaders of corporations or leaders in general that have a significant cleft related speech impediment?” Invariably the answer is “no one.” Acceptance will only come if more speech affected adults break their own glass ceiling and show others their true capability. It can be done!

As to my advice for overcoming cleft challenges, the usual clichés apply: hard work, perseverance, developing strong friendships and mentors, not being afraid to take risks and, of course, self-deprecating humor. But, more than anything else, my advice to all cleft affected teenagers and adults is to “Accept what you have but NEVER accept the implied limitations.” Being cleft affected does not mean you cannot be, or achieve anything you desire, socially and career wise. You have no limitations!