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When I Realized I Was Making Assumptions About Other People Who Stutter

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It took me almost 25 years to face my stutter, and that first step of acknowledgment absolutely was the hardest part. I was lucky, though: Once I got there, finding a speech therapist who worked with adult patients made for an incredible, empowering and professionally guided introduction to objectively regarding my stutter.

The more I learned about my stutter, the more I wanted to talk to other people who stutter (PWS) about their experiences and find out where they were on their journeys of reclamation. So I checked out a few Facebook communities and… was promptly disappointed. It’s one thing to immediately realize you need to manage your expectations; it’s another to meet aggressively differing perspectives, like how bitterly some of my fellow PWS blamed their stutters for all of their lives’ ills, from a scarcity of confidence to teenagers condemning themselves to a lifetime of solitude. Those were not experiences I could relate to, and they certainly weren’t what I expected as my first impression of the stuttering community.

But disappointment and discomfort are excellent teachers, and if there’s one prevailing benefit to learning how to navigate one’s speech impediment as an adult, it’s at least coming armed with the patience to settle in for the long haul.

What really threw me off, though, was apparently joining a bunch of groups around the same time as someone who was handling their stutter with angry humor. My first day or two of curious scrolling was peppered with posts like “Hey, if stuttering is a disability, can I park in accessible parking spots?”

It wasn’t the willful misunderstanding of designated parking spots’ purpose that shocked me into speechlessness: It was the lightbulb moment of realizing that some people consider stuttering a disability.

Just because I shied away from acknowledging my stutter until I was 30 doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of it. It was always there, ready to humiliate me, other me, interrupt a punchline or make another unsuspecting cashier regard me with some combination of confusion, amusement, pity and sneering cruelty whenever I got caught on another landmine syllable. I knew it was there. I just pretended it wasn’t.

I saw my stutter as more of an inconvenience than a disability. All my anger was consequently self-directed: Why do I let it bother me so much? Why do I let it keep me from speaking up? Why do I beat myself up so much when I get tripped up on a word? It was the control it has over my emotions and reactions that angered me, not its presence in the first place.

And I was offended anyone would have the audacity to consider this speech impediment tantamount to Something More Serious. In those awestruck early days, such a needlessly escalated categorization seemed like wanting to create an insurmountable hill for the sake of excusing oneself from even attempting to best the challenge in the first place, a sort of combination sour grapes and Giants in Chains syndrome all wrapped up in one helpless, dismissive shrug.

Meanwhile, I wrote social media screeds about all of us being on our own journeys and how unfair it is to judge someone from a waypoint they hadn’t reached yet, how fundamentally mean it is to assume someone’s goals are the same as yours and condescend to them for not getting there faster, how someone who’s still in pain can’t start to heal until the trauma has passed, how everyone’s paths are different lengths, start in different places and wind through different internal geographies. I was writing from a place of having bypassed a lot of the pain my fellow PWS were still healing from, or still trapped and wounded by, blithely unaware of how badly being at the mercy of your own unpredictable tongue can ruin a person’s sense of self-worth.

It didn’t dawn on me that I was dealing with my own damage by insisting that my stuttering isn’t a disability until a post from a community I could have sworn I’d left popped up at the top of my timeline: “What if we started looking at stuttering as a spectrum?”

Talk about being gobsmacked! For years, I’d felt quietly grateful that a speech therapist diagnosed my stutter as a mild one: I was justified in feeling like all my accompanying hangups were valid and could exist just covertly enough to operate in fluent society. It didn’t register that I was looking at stuttering on a binary scale of “mostly undetectable” to “relentlessly persistent,” even though I knew well enough that my own comparatively mild stutter can flare up unannounced to make every syllable a struggle for month after antagonizing month.

Thinking of stuttering as something too myriad in manifestation to affix one catch-all identity was a revelation. As I’d railed against the barrage of negativity PWS brought to the conversation, I was erasing experiences that needed — and deserved! — validation just as much as my own did. Just because my own stutter didn’t define my existence doesn’t mean it’s not all-consuming for someone else. Just because I can mostly move through life without letting my stutter ruin my day doesn’t mean that someone isn’t bullied relentlessly for the way they speak.

I didn’t want to think of myself as being disabled. But what do I lose if someone else who talks like me both feels their stutter has compromised their quality of life and could benefit from additional support and accommodations as they endeavor to claw their way out of the shadows of silenced shame and claim their own place in the sun to thrive? These things aren’t a zero-sum game: They’re proof that shared impediments present themselves in ways as unique as our personalities, perspectives and places in the world. And we all deserve a chance to be the person we swear we’d be if not for that one thing we’d all, at one point or another and in varying tenses, fervently wished to rid ourselves of.

People aren’t monoliths, and neither are the labels we share. But I think it’s all too easy to subscribe to another false binary of an Us vs. Them perspective, creating unnecessary and harmful divisions because we’re so used to being one person speaking from a perspective few others in our sphere of influence have experienced firsthand and plenty won’t listen to. It’s natural, I think, to get so used to advocating for yourself that you forget other people are on your side, just coming at it from a different place.

And rather than rail against those not-perfectly harmonious experiences, we should be looking for our similarities, to both learn for ourselves and educate others as a unified, inclusive voice where everyone has a platform because everyone’s experience is valid. If we can support our own community by listening to the constellations of lived-in experiences we’ve faced because of our similarities, we get a better understanding of how we can all help each other. Every perspective has something meaningful to offer, from the person begging everyone to start looking at hurdles as gifts of personal growth to the individual crying out for visibility after another soul-crushing day.

I haven’t quite figured out yet why I don’t want to be considered disabled. Whether it’s social stigma, my own stubbornness or something else entirely, that’s a part of my own journey I haven’t traversed yet. But that’s the beauty of these journeys: We don’t know their shape, their course, or their destinations, but we do know they’ll be infinite sources of education just as infinitely intersecting with others’ lifelong peregrinations. Sometimes we’ll be the guiding light and helping hand leading someone else from a hole we’ve fallen down before, sometimes we’ll be the ones in need of some gentle intervention and course correction, and sometimes it’s just our job to listen to others whose stories are an illuminating light all their own.

Getty image by g-stockstudio.

Originally published: May 26, 2021
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