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How Stuttering Affects Employment Opportunities

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It is perplexing the way I can at times feel pulled in two completely contrasting directions: confident in my abilities as a museum professional, and yet supremely terrified of articulating the details of that in a job interview format. This has been the case in most presentations I’ve had to give in the past, whether it be an academic research conference where I was utterly assured of the content I had written but petrified of the seemingly small matter of sharing my name and personal information at the start of the talk, or something such as performing music — in which I am also very confident in my ability to play the correct notes in the correct time, but completely averse to the need for stage banter and any aspect of the performance that doesn’t involve the music itself.

While most people would contest from these statements that at least I am capable in the “important” components of performance and that a great deal of this struggle must come from within me, most who live without speech disorders wouldn’t even consider the inherently communicative nature of performance that exists beyond the content the performance is centered around.

Our culture is obsessed with appearance and rhythm. However, this rhythm as it pertains to speech is married to the notion of flow and smooth articulation as virtues in and of themselves instead of being vehicles to communicate ideas and information. For instance, if I was presenting a research paper and began with “Hello my name is K-K-Kyle and I attend SUNY Nnnnew Paltz,” many people may make judgments about my abilities to communicate. These judgments can be as harsh as the stereotypes permit or as harmless and naïve as delineating my speech as something “other.” Even if I were to present the entirety of my paper relatively unencumbered apart from a few stumbles, the blatantly obvious quality of my initial stuttering will have been the identifying feature of my presentation to most people in the audience.

I don’t intend for this to be a cynical or angry take on the public’s ignorance surrounding stuttering, but I want to point to the way we have been acculturated into a homogeneous manner of speech articulation that values efficiency and uniformity. This is not to say that people without speech abnormalities speak “perfectly” — far from it. But it is the perception of perfection which fuels this inner narrative that those who break from this cycle are somehow impeded or “wrong.” Every human being will bobble and stumble occasionally when speaking; these are accepted deviations in the social paradigm of “normal speech.” However, when there is a sustained or noticeable hindrance to the flow of conversation, the listener’s brain determines “this is something else.”

This is not news to people who stutter. We have seen the changes in body language or the light bulbs going off in the eyes of those we are talking to when they first recognize that we are stuttering. Our culture has still not adequately taught people how to respond to stuttering, and that’s why most of us who stutter understand their reactions as rude or hurtful instead of as ignorant or uninformed.

This failure to comprehend stuttering takes a far more nefarious role in the case of job interviews. I am positive I have been neglected for relatively high-profile job offers on at least two occasions because of my perceived inability to communicate effectively. Job interviews have always been my kryptonite and the thing I probably resent most. I like to discuss the details of my education and past experiences, but I already know the obstacles I am up against as a person who stutters when stepping into the job interview arena.

Job interviews are already extremely stressful moments for many people, whether they stutter or not, and it can be excruciating having to worry not only about addressing the content you wish to convey, but also how you are going to convey it. Most employers will have the exact same preconceptions of “normal speech,” but now speech is not only tied to effectively conversating, but also effectively communicating within a team of employees.

Potential employers are not immune to the body language changes or eye contact aversions I see in listeners when I am stuttering, regardless of their candor or desire to appear neutral and unaffected. I’ve seen time and time again how the cosmetic quality of the sounds that come out of my mouth when I speak take precedence over my wealth of experience and education. I’ve seen the interviewer decide that I would not be hired well before I got the callback, regardless of my master’s degree or diverse range of abilities, once they understood that it may be too difficult for them to make accommodations to be able to communicate with me on their own terms.

The Americans With Disabilities Act’s ambiguous definition of stuttering as “sometimes” being a disability in certain severe instances may play a role in this unwillingness of employers to accept stuttering as a real, tangible condition. It is really no surprise then that many other people who stutter experience employment discrimination. A 2004 Journal of Fluency Disorders study of 232 adults who stutter found that over 70 percent of these people agreed that “stuttering decreases one’s chances of being hired or promoted,” and 33 percent of people who stutter believe stuttering “interferes with their job performance.”

It is clear to me that fluency, or the initial appearance of fluency, is too often conflated with the ability to communicate. I consider myself an excellent communicator even if the nature of my articulation doesn’t always fit snugly into society’s appearance-obsessed conceptions of normal speech. Employers must begin to pay closer attention to the unique qualities of interviewees and not confine them to preconceived notions of desirable, employable traits that may prove to be exclusionary.

However, I will say that it has taken a huge weight off my shoulders to disclose my stuttering and my concerns around it to prospective and current employers as well as teachers. Doing this puts you in the driver’s seat to clear the air and address the stuttering on your own terms. During my first interview for the job I currently have, I could barely get any sound out at all. Instead of emotionally retreating into myself as I often do when I encounter an embarrassingly bad stutter in an important social situation, I confronted it immediately and informed my potential (now current) employers that it would not affect my job performance. They seemed to appreciate my candidness and honesty about something I was obviously quite sensitive about.

While I am not in love with my job and I still encounter issues associated with my speech on an almost daily basis, it is profoundly helpful to know that I am appreciated for the skills and attributes I bring to the table instead of judged by some flawed, baseless impression of “communication” that is often damaging to those of us who communicate in unconventional ways.

Getty image by Fizkes.

Originally published: April 16, 2019
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