What is Voice Habilitation?

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change this world.”
-Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

I first heard the word habilitation in 2012 at the Summer Vocology Institute in Salt Lake City, UT.  It came up in association with the treatment of injured voices and was the topic of much discussion that summer. (It continues to be the topic of much discussion, it turns out.)

Most of us are familiar with rehabilitation as a medical term, but what about habilitation?  It carries a different meaning than rehabilitation and, in the opinion of vocology experts, deserves a conversation – both for the sake of voice practitioners and consumers alike.

As defined by the text Vocology,

“habilitation is the process of enabling, equipping for, or capacitating.  Voice habilitation is therefore more than repairing a voice, or bringing it back to a normal state.  It includes the process of building and strengthening the voice to meet specific needs.” (Titze, Verdolini Abbott, 2012 pg.11)

Rehabilitation vs. Habilitation

Let’s look at habilitation and rehabiltation back to back.  Merriam Webster online defines the verb habilitate as:

Habilitate (v) : to make fit or capable

When compared to the verb rehabilitate, the nuance between habilitation and rehabilitation becomes more evident:

Rehabilitate (v) : to restore or bring to a condition of health or useful and constructive activity

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A Singer’s View of Voice Problems

“The only thing better than singing is more singing.”
~Ella Fitzgerald

I was diagnosed with nodules when I was in my Masters’ degree – for classical voice performance. When I was in the ENT’s office, I realized that I didn’t know anything about how my voice worked. Not really.

Sure, I’d been taking voice lessons since I was in high school, sung in choirs forever, and I had even taken one semester of vocal pedagogy. But that didn’t teach me about my voice. I just hadn’t been paying attention.

So here I was in this chair – alone – crying. I barely heard what the ENT was saying. I just didn’t know what this meant for me – for my singing career that hadn’t even started yet. I heard him say that this was most likely caused by “vocal misuse and abuse.”

This is, as I know now, an unfortunate standard line still used in too many clinics. I was doing everything that teachers and coaches and conductors told me to do! How was I abusing my voice?

I went on immediate and complete vocal rest, found a speech therapist, and dropped out of the lead role in the opera. (And then had another night of crying about that.)

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