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When the Person Who Stutters Is the Expert In the Room

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One of the best therapy experiences for a person who stutters is to give talks about stuttering to people who don’t stutter. A person who has stuttered her entire life is certainly an expert on the topic. People who stutter and professionals in the field of speech language pathology can teach each other. A person who stutters can teach more than a textbook can to students studying to become therapists.

I have had the opportunity several times to speak to both professional SLPs and students. I have spoken to graduate stuttering classes at universities both in person and via Skype. I’ve told my story and let people ask questions. One thing I’ve learned is that talking about stuttering to people who don’t stutter is extremely valuable. Both professionals and students don’t always have a lot of experience working with people who stutter, so getting to “pick our brain” is important.

I had the opportunity to speak to the New York State Speech Hearing and Language Association annual conference this past Saturday. I had proposed a workshop on covert stuttering and was delighted that it was accepted. I was assigned the last slot on Saturday to speak, for which I was not delighted. I was worried only a handful of people would come to the last slot of a two-day conference. But I was wrong. I had a nice turnout with a mix of professionals and students, who stuck around ’till the end to learn more about stuttering.

My workshop was titled “Reclaiming Her Space: From Covert to Overt Stuttering.” My goal was to talk about how a person makes the transition from wanting to hide their stuttering to reaching a point where they are OK with stuttering openly. I had a formal PowerPoint presentation prepared, with 28 slides. I also had a couple of activities planned for participants to do to convey what it’s like to try to hide stuttering.

I quickly realized I was not going to get through all of my material. The audience wanted to ask questions and engage in dialogue with me. They really wanted to hear my personal story about my stuttering journey. So I pretty much ditched the last half hour of the presentation and just “leaned in” to having a back-and-forth discussion, with lots of great questions.

It dawned on me at that point that I was the expert in the room. People wanted to know how it felt to stutter and how I handled less than positive reactions from people who are not used to communicating with someone who stutters. Because I get negative reactions a lot. People sometimes respond to me rudely, with pity or attempt to finish my words and thoughts for me.

After the presentation was over, I felt relieved and proud. I gave myself an invisible high five for giving my best and stuttering unapologetically and openly in front of people I didn’t know. People came up to me at the end to thank me and a few even hugged me.

But the best thank you came from a young SLP student who approached me in tears. She said she stutters too, that so much of what I had said resonated with her and that she wished she had the same courage to openly stutter. She said she has always tried to hide her stuttering out of fear and shame, but I had sparked a desire in her to try being more open. She said she hopes being a person who stutters will help her be a more compassionate SLP. We hugged and I felt a connection with her. I felt she was leaving with just a little more confidence to take with her on her journey.

Stuttering makes us vulnerable. But when we take the risk to share our story, we realize many people are interested in our authentic voice. For that I am grateful.

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Originally published: May 8, 2017
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