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How Remote Work Has Magnified Discrimination Against People Who Stutter

People who stutter have long been the target of discrimination and harassment. Far too common are the stories of being rejected for the customer-facing job or the lead part in the school play. Turns out, you can even become President of the United States and still have stuttering used against you. Now, with the pandemic-driven shift to virtual communication platforms and remote learning, the risks of discrimination have only increased.

Discrimination on the basis of stuttering, like other disabilities, is prohibited by multiple anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act. Nevertheless, many appear unaware or unaccepting of the laws, and too few people who stutter have exercised their rights within the legal system. This needs to change.

As many as 1 in 10 children stutter for some period of their lives. And while many grow out of it, approximately 25% continue to stutter as adults. In total, nearly 3 million American adults stutter, including me. Stuttering is a communication disorder involving disruptions in a person’s speech, often characterized by repetitions or prolongations of sounds, as well as blocks, or the absence of sound. Researchers believe it is caused by some combination of genetics, language development and environmental factors. There is no cure for stuttering.

Yet, that does not stop many people who stutter from searching for one. President Joe Biden, in his youth, recited poetry in front of a mirror, hoping to gain control of his unruly speech. Similarly, I used every at-home reading skills program I could find, tirelessly practicing sounds hoping to wrangle fluency. After all, the message is clear to children and adults: get rid of your stutter or face societal backlash.

Despite Biden’s best efforts, that backlash did come. When he was in seventh grade, struggling to read a passage aloud in class, his teacher taunted him, “Mr. Buh-buh-buh Biden.” In high school, his classmates assigned him disparaging names intended to ridicule him. Throughout Biden’s political career, and especially during his recent Presidential campaign, opponents frequently used his stuttering to discredit him, painting him as bumbling at best, and at worst as experiencing cognitive decline and being unfit for office. Former President Trump’s advisors even discussed the political strategy of triggering Biden’s stutter during debates — an attempt to emphasize Biden’s disability rather than his merit as a candidate. Of course, portraying disability as weakness is directly from the former administration’s playbook.

Biden’s lifelong experience with stuttering is shared by most of us who stutter. The mistreatment and ostracization begin in school, and for many, follow us into the workplace. Children who stutter face bullying and battle long-held stigmas attached to this invisible disability, including assumptions that they are less intelligent than their peers. Workplace studies have shown that people who stutter believe they are less likely to be hired due to their stutter, and those who are employed make less money and often hold unfulfilling positions for which they are overqualified. Employees who stutter report not being invited to key meetings and getting assigned backroom roles. As one summed up, “this voice is not what they want.”

With more meetings virtual and classrooms remote, new communication challenges pose increased risks of discrimination and harassment. Children report being talked over and having their sentences finished, and say their teachers confuse their stutter with a faulty Internet connection. Adult job-seekers who stutter find video interviews, which are bereft of in-person connection, more challenging than face-to-face meetings. The experience of seeing ourselves stutter on screen can increase feelings of vulnerability, and generally makes virtual communications more intimidating. After all, stuttering is hard enough without having it mirrored back at you, often with a two-second technology delay.

For a group already pressed to vigilantly resist being left out of the conversation — or not even invited to the meeting in the first place — these new communication challenges threaten to completely undermine education and workplace success.

It seems that few people who stutter challenge discrimination. This reticence stems in part from the hazards posed by self-identifying as people who stutter. In turn, people who stutter may tend to avoid open discourse or community-building with others who stutter, and therefore miss out on opportunities to cultivate self-advocacy skills. It’s no surprise, considering that people who stutter are still often mocked without consequences for the offenders.

A person who stutters is President, yet millions continue to face discrimination at work and at school – discrimination deepening every day during the pandemic. National Stuttering Awareness Week serves as a reminder to demand equal treatment and opportunities for people who stutter. Legal challenges can be initiated either in state or federal court or, if unrepresented by legal counsel, with local, state or federal agencies. Standing up to discrimination can bring about change now, and will help prevent future discrimination against all people who stutter.

Getty image by insta_photos.