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What Will It Take to End the Ignorance About Stuttering?

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The world continues to be impatient with stuttering. It makes many people uncomfortable, nervous, and seems to activate the part of the brain that assumes any stereotypical portrayal of stuttering one has seen must be true. If it’s on the Internet, it must be true. If it’s on TV or in a movie, it must be true.

Stuttering has been around for years and years and the exact cause is still unknown. Only about 1 percent of the population stutters, so it’s relatively uncommon and sometimes people have never even met a person who stutters. Even stutterers themselves often never meet a fellow stutterer, thus leading many of us to believe we’re the only one.

Hollywood uses this rarity for comedic effect, often portraying people who stutter as bumbling fools, emotional wrecks and incompetent. Occasionally, something comes close to the truth, like the movie “The King’s Speech” (2010), which realistically portrayed King George of England, who stuttered. For the first time, millions of people who stutter felt like they finally weren’t being represented in a negative light. But many myths were perpetuated about stuttering, including things like parental bullying causing stuttering.

People who stutter still struggle to be taken seriously, to have equity in schools and at work. Kids are teased and bullied in the school yard and classroom, sometimes even by teachers. Some kids feel uncomfortable being “pulled out” of class to attend speech therapy where everyone sees they are singled out. And very often, the school-based therapist has little to no knowledge about stuttering because university programs only require one class in fluency disorders, if that. Many have dropped the requirement completely.

A 2018 published study about labor market outcomes in the U.S. shows that people who stutter are often paid significantly less than fluent colleagues for doing the same exact job. And this is particularly true for women who stutter, a minority within a minority to which I belong.

People still laugh at people who stutter, mimic us and make clueless comments. Often, we can and should brush it off, as most of the time it’s not meant maliciously. Sometimes we should self-advocate and take a moment to educate and hope the person who laughed won’t do it again the next time they encounter a person who stutters.

This has happened too many times for me and sometimes I get sick of having to explain I stutter, and would they please not laugh and please be patient enough to let me finish my own sentence. Stuttering is one of those “hidden disabilities” someone doesn’t see coming, so they don’t know we stutter until we open our mouths. Most civil people would never laugh at a person in a wheelchair. Why then is it OK to laugh at stuttering?

Last month, I went to my doctor’s office for a planned appointment because I was having seriously low blood sugar issues. Yeah, I’m diabetic too. Another hidden disability. But no one has ever laughed upon learning I have diabetes.

When the nurse called me in, she asked me to verify my birth date. I began saying “tw-tw-twelve” and she laughed. I looked her dead in the eye and continued with “th-th-thirteen” and she laughed again, and then said, “it’s not a trick question.”

I was stunned and embarrassed. There was another nurse in line of sight and within earshot. This was a nurse, a medical professional. I stayed calm and said, “wait, I stutter, what you’re hearing is stuttering, please don’t laugh.” She claimed that’s not why she laughed. I stood firm and asked, “oh, what were you laughing at then?” She said the confused look on my face when she asked my birth date was funny.

I said, “Of course I knew my birth date, I just stutter.” Then nothing else. She did not offer an apology and I was left feeling humiliated.

I stewed about it for two days before deciding to contact someone in the patient relations department of the large faith-based hospital group practice. I chose to go that route because if I didn’t say anything, how would anything change? They were unhappy this happened and seemed receptive to my offer of providing an educational awareness session to medical associates. Medical professionals also don’t get any training on what stuttering is and isn’t.

I’ve talked to a few people now affiliated with the hospital about next steps.  It’s been frustrating since it’s clearly not a training priority for them, and one person admitted that after talking to the nurse, the nurse’s only regret was that the matter had “got this far.” That was discouraging.

What’s it going to take? People do not laugh and mimic other disabilities. How can we pave a smoother road for kids who stutter so they don’t have to deal with educational and career discrimination and be the brunt of jokes? Why is it so hard to be patient and respectful to everybody?

Please, just take that extra moment and listen. Don’t roll your eyes or look away or finish what I’m trying to say. It’s not that hard.

Getty image by Mykyta Dolmatov.

Originally published: May 15, 2019
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