After being mute, Iowa State University graduating senior speaks with a new voice

AMES, Iowa -- When Kevin Neff stands at the lectern in his cap and gown Friday, he'll speak to his fellow College of Business graduates with a new voice.

They'll recognize Neff. He was the guy who greeted them at the front desk of the student services office with a dry erase board or a talking computer. They'd speak really loud so he could hear their questions. And he'd write back: "I can hear. I just can't speak."

For three-and-a-half years, Neff had no voice. And while some would say his vocal cords were silenced by a freak of nature and cured by a fluke of healing, Neff believes it all happened for a purpose. Because the voice he speaks with today is stronger, clearer and mellower than ever.

"I am not the same person I was four years ago," Neff said. "I honestly believe that this time without a voice was for a reason."

Kevin Neff with his talking tools in the student services office of Iowa State's College of Business. Photo by Bob Elbert (Print-quality download).

No voice, no answers

Neff graduated from an Illinois high school in 1986, attended Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, for 18 months and moved up the ranks of the building materials industry to management. With the onset of the housing market collapse in 2006, he became a licensed financial advisor. In 2007, Neff and his wife and two sons moved from Indiana to central Iowa where he went to work for Edward Jones.

Just after Halloween, Neff met one of his first clients in her home. Although she was recovering from a virus, family members were still sick. Neff caught the virus. And, because he's asthmatic, it affected his lungs. The muscles in his neck tensed up. His voice grew steadily weaker.

By Thanksgiving, he could only "whisper-talk." The doctor assured Neff his voice would return when the virus passed.

It did not.

Neff saw an ear, nose and throat specialist. The doctor found no medical reason to explain why Neff's voice box did not move correctly -- no tumors, no polyps, nothing physical. He called it functional dysphonia -- a condition in which the muscles controlling the vocal cords tighten and lock. A cure remained elusive. He sent Neff to a speech therapist.

After a few weeks of speech therapy, Neff still couldn't talk. He saw specialists at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. Same tests, same diagnosis. No answers.

"On the drive back from Iowa City, my wife and I realized that this could be permanent," he said.

No job, no degree

Although Neff tried to work -- using a laptop voice program like Stephen Hawking's -- he grew increasingly discouraged. In June 2008, Edward Jones terminated him. For eight agonizing months, Neff had been without a voice. Now he was without a livelihood.

Although his resume was bursting with career success, Neff struggled in his job hunt. By September, he was in a deep depression.

"I knew I needed a change," Neff said.

During an Iowa Workforce Development vocational rehabilitation workshop, Neff learned about a tuition-assistance program for full-time enrollment in state schools. In December 2008, he was approved for the program and accepted by Iowa State.

New friends, new opportunities

During his early semesters as a finance major, Neff relied on paper tablets and dry erase boards to communicate. He found the faculty and staff extremely supportive and accommodating.

"Without the people in the college and ISU's Student Disability Resources office, I would be right back where I started," Neff said. "They encouraged me, gave me opportunities to succeed and were always ready to help."

One opportunity came as a rather surprising campus job for fall 2009. Neff was hired to be the "first point of contact" in the college's student services office - where undergraduates go with questions about everything from academic requirements to financial aid.

"I knew I would need to get comfortable with people face to face and learn how to communicate. And that was the prime place to do it," Neff said. "The student services staff was fantastic and very patient with me."

Neff regularly sought better technology to help him interface with the world. A new iPad with "Speak It" program spoke words he typed. It used a voice he chose to be his permanent vocal identity. And it worked with PowerPoint, so Neff could give class presentations.

New hope

By the end of spring semester 2011, Neff had been without a voice for three-and-a-half years. As he was about to begin an administrative assistant internship with the Iowa National Guard, he opened a friend's email.

"I'll never forget the day - May 16 - I got the email about a doctor in Cleveland who helped a woman with a problem like mine," Neff said. "I contacted the doctor, got an appointment and drove there."

The appointment with Dr. Claudio Milstein at the Cleveland Clinic's Head and Neck Institute had happened so fast that Neff "didn't know what to think about this doctor." But photographs in the waiting room told him he was in the right place.

"There was Madonna, Wayne Newton, American Idol singers and other celebrities, so I thought, 'Maybe he is the real deal,'" Neff said.

New voice

"I might be able to help you," Milstein said, following an initial examination.

Milstein used deep tissue massage on Neff's temples, throat and neck. Through singers' warm-up exercises, Neff gargled and tried to make the "m" sound.

"Within 15 to 30 minutes, I combined letters and started to make sounds like "me" -- something I hadn't done in three-and-a-half years," Neff said.

"By that point, I was crying, because I knew I'd be able to talk again," he said.

Milstein pulled Neff's voice box down ("uncomfortable but not painful"), then moved and massaged it. Neff spoke combinations of letters. He said his A-B-Cs and counted to 10. His voice was weak. But he had a voice.

After an hour, Milstein instructed Neff to go to the window of the 7th floor office and yell at a passerby. Within minutes, Neff was yelling loudly. His voice was nearly normal.

Armed only with vocal exercises and assurances that the condition would not return, Neff headed home. Talking all the way.

New future

When Neff speaks to the College of Business graduates, he'll tell them to expect change and keep priorities straight. Being mute has been humbling. He's gone from a comfortable life to living on the edge. He's had to ask for help. He's had to listen. He's had to find a way to make it work. He's had to stop being afraid.

"During my time at Iowa State, I've realized that everything is possible, even with a disability. You cannot give up. It's just a matter of finding the right people to support you and encourage you. To give you opportunities," he said.

This fall Neff, who graduates summa cum laude, heads to graduate school. He's looking for the best career fit for "who he is now."

"Now I look at people with disabilities differently. And now that I have a voice, I want to do what I can to advocate for them," he said.

"I want to do as much as I can to help others get back on their feet, and give them the best opportunities possible," Neff said.

"Because I know how low I was. I felt lost. I got lucky."