by Alexander Whelan, MA, CCC-SLP
Each year, the stuttering community celebrates International Stuttering Awareness Day on October 22nd. People who stutter (PWS) all over the world take this opportunity to raise awareness and educate others about stuttering and to shine light on some of the “blind spots” and misconceptions that people have about stuttering.
As PWS know, stuttering is so much more than what casual listeners can observe during mundane, everyday interactions. As an example, PWS could experience twenty minutes of mounting anxiety while sitting at a restaurant waiting to order an entrée. If their order happens to come out fluently or mostly fluently, the server and everybody else at the table are completely unaware of the stressful moments that were just endured. Even when stuttering is directly observable, listeners only see a snapshot of the stuttering moment. All of the mental gymnastics that led up to that moment aren’t outwardly visible to listeners. Neither are the embarrassment, awkwardness, guilt at having caused awkwardness for the listener, frustration, and shame that sometimes follow stuttering moments.
As this is International Stuttering Awareness Day, it’s interesting to note that stuttering is met with varying levels of acceptance in different cultures throughout the world. Some years ago, I spoke with somebody from Jamaica who came to the United States for the first time as a college freshman. He was taken aback to hear one of his professors kindly suggest that he seek therapy to work on his stutter. A speech difference that he was hardly aware of because it was completely accepted throughout his upbringing in Jamaica was suddenly something that he was supposed to work on. After his professor’s comment, he couldn’t help but view it as a problem that he somehow had to “fix”.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have a vivid memory of a powerful conversation with a woman who had grown up in China who had a very different experience of acceptance. She had spent her childhood doing whatever she had to do to hide stuttering because her parents had told her it was a weakness that must not be shown publicly. She lived with immense pressure to conceal stuttering at all costs through her formative years. She first came to the United States in her 20s an was amazed to find support groups full of people speaking openly about their experiences with stuttering. The opportunity to speak openly about stuttering with adults that she had never met before was a culture shock and a life changing experience for her.
The fact that there are support groups for PWS all over our country means that we still have a ways to go before we reach societal acceptance of stuttering in the United States. Earlier this week, I mentioned those two stories to an 11 year old client and asked him where he thought the U.S. falls on the scale of stuttering acceptance. His response, “I think America is not so accepting.”
One small step toward acceptance of stuttering as a society is to redefine what it means to “overcome” stuttering. Many actors, singers, athletes, and politicians self-report that they overcame stuttering somewhere along their path to stardom. The trouble is that the vast majority of these celebrities who stutter don’t stutter openly when they’re on camera. This contributes to the misconception that “overcoming stuttering” means becoming a fluent speaker. Over the last few weeks, some of my clients have been helping to redefine what it means to overcome stuttering. Here is what they came up with-
- “Overcoming stuttering means to not be scared of stuttering and knowing that it’s ok if you do stutter.”
- “Overcoming stuttering means to feel good about stuttering.”
- "I feel like, it's not being embarrassed by stuttering. Keep the listener interested by the way you speak and don't think about how long it takes you to start."
- “Overcoming stuttering is about being comfortable with being me. Why would I waste my time trying to hide stuttering when that usually only makes it worse?”
- “Overcoming stuttering means being comfortable with the fact that you stutter and not letting it stop you from doing what you want to do.”
These clients were between the ages of 11-18 and they all clearly get it. Overcoming stuttering isn’t about fluency, it’s about accepting yourself as you are. It’s about acceptance of stuttering as a part of you, not something that you have to conquer or fix. It’s about learning to live your life with courage, confidence, and resilience. I thank each of them for helping to redefine what it means to overcome stuttering. On this International Stuttering Awareness Day, that’s the type of stuttering awareness the world needs most.