Exploring Mindfulness Stuttering Language (Michael Sugarman)

About the Author: Michael Sugarman, MSW. Attended peer support groups for people with disabilities at the Center for Independent Living, Berkeley California, in the late 1970’s and saw the stuttering community movement and disability rights movement together to argue for human rights (Americans with Disabilities Act) and remove  stigma of being “stupid, nervous”, or  seen as “less than whole.”

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug” Mark Twain (1)

In 1978 a few members of the National Stuttering Association (NSA) attended a panel discussion by Gene Cooper, Hugo Gregory, Joseph Sheehan and William Perkins at the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) Conference, San Francisco, California  who asked speakers to reframe from using “Stutterer” and use “Person who Stutters.”

Michael Hartford from National Council for Adult Stutterers and I presented Advocacy Movement in USA and the Failure of the Profession (ASHA) Conference 1978. Approximately 150 -175 folks attended.

The term “people first language” first appears in 1988 as recommended by advocacy groups in the USA (2). The usage has been widely adopted by speech language pathologists and researchers with ‘person who stutters’ (PWS) replacing stutterer.

In our society, speech is considered one of the most important means of interpersonal communication. While other means such as written language, may be superior at times in conveying the content of messages, spoken language not only contains the content, but includes information about the speaker’s intent, emotions, personality and perceptions. That is why people spend millions of dollars developing tools that allow for automatic voice recognition systems and incorporation of voice and images in electronic communication (3).

Unfortunately the window speech provides on the speaker’s self also can lead to stereotypical perceptions of people with speech issues that go well beyond their speech difficulties.

While spoken word is taken for granted by most, the use of speech language is challenging for millions around the world who stutter. It is estimated that 1% or 70 million of the 7 billion people with whom we share this world, stutter. For many of us, daily communication is a constant struggle; our speech may not open doors, but closes them for interpersonal, academic and professional development and fulfilment.

Disrespectful language can make us feel excluded and a barrier to full participation. I am hoping we can address this by developing Mindful Stuttering Language to change our relationship with listeners and society to create a positive environment in which to develop their aspirations and advocate with teachers, colleagues, family members and partners how words and phrases they use make us feel (4).

First we may want to address: being different; recognition of our self-worth and dignity, and celebrate contributions, skills and strengths we exhibit. Our need to change and examine common stereotypes of our stuttering: incapable; not intelligent; unable to express feelings; and possibly considered as an inspiration.

Please add your thoughts and comments on what you believe would be Mindful Stuttering Language.  Thank you.

  1. National Youth Leadership Network-Kids as Self Advocates @ 2006 NYLN and KASA
  2. People First Language Wikipedia
  3. Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for People who Stutter 2000
  4. National Youth Leadership Network-Kids as Self Advocates @ 2006NYLN and KASA

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Exploring Mindfulness Stuttering Language (Michael Sugarman) — 8 Comments

  1. Hi Michael, I love the idea of creating a more mindful approach that would allow for celebration of differences. Mindfulness can be helpful in so many scenarios, and I’m surprised that this is the first that I’ve heard of it being associated with Stuttering Language. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Hi Michael. Thank you for creating this conversation about Language. A couple years ago we did a workshop at the NSA conference on How the Language We Use Affects the Way We Think About Stuttering. When working on this workshop, I remembered Bob Dylan who said: Gonna change my way of thinking–Make myself a different set of rules.

    That is in fact what we need to do: change our way if thinking and thereby change the rules. For example: Non-judgment is a key concept in Mindfulness. Many PWS, and people in general, report on their negative judgments of themselves. For us PWS, it is especially important to practice non-judgement about the way way we speak. We should stop saying things like “I had a bad stuttering day”. The struggle is real, but the stuttering, as Sheehan (I think) said, is neither good nor bad. It simply Is. When we stop judging ourselves and our stuttering we pave the way to living our lives. So, I would offer that “non-judgmental observation” is key to Mindful Stuttering Language.

    Thanks a lot, Michael.

  3. Hi Michael, I agree that using mindful language when talking about and thinking about stuttering is a powerful tool to shift the perceptions of people who stutter and their listeners. As an SLP graduate student, I haven’t encountered many clients who stutter yet on my caseload. How would you suggest implementing the idea of “mindful stuttering language” into therapy?

  4. Thank you for sharing Michael. As a future SLP I am going to take this information and help spread the word on Mindful Stuttering Language. It is important to spread the word and allow everyone to feel more comfortable around other people. Living in a positive environment allows people to be more successful. As a future SLP I want to be an advocate for what is right and I want to make sure I can be someone to help start this positive environment for people to live in.

  5. Hi Michael,
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this. I am a graduate SLP student. This experience of going into the healthcare profession has taught me a lot about person first language. I think it is liberating for people to be seen as individuals and not defined by a disorder. I think there is a huge educational component to this as well – we need to educate people we interact with about stuttering and person first language.

  6. Hello Michael,

    Thank you for a wonderful article! I appreciate that you are attempting to bring mindfulness into the realm of fluency and stuttering therapy. I really like how you wrote that part of a Mindfulness approach can be inculcating into our clients that being different is not a crime or a problem– being different is beautiful and an essential part of what makes us human.

  7. Hi Michael,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about mindful language use. I definitely agree that the use of mindful language is very important when working with clients. It shows others that they are respected and that it is okay to be different. I think it is imperative that we change the stereotypes of stuttering. I believe that more classrooms should inform children and teenagers about stuttering early on to reduce these negative perceptions society has. No one should be made to feel bad about their differences. We are all different in our own ways.

  8. Hey Michael,

    Great insights!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings on the topic! Mindful language was something I haven’t given much thought to however, it is something our society needs to implement. I am a graduate student studying speech-language pathology and currently am working with a student who stutters. I want to incorporate being different, recognizing self-worth and dignity, as well as celebrating his contributions!
    Everyone on this planet has different trials and obstacles to pass through, if everyone remembered that difficulty of our trials does not correlate to our self-worth or ability to contribute to society, I feel the world would be a better place. It may always be a struggle in the society in which we live, but you are an inspiration. Thanks for taking the time to be an advocate and educate others. An accumulation of small but powerful acts will make a big difference in the end.


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