|About the author: Pamela Mertz is a person who stutters who is quite active in the stuttering community. She is a 4-year Stutter Social host, writes the blog “Make Room For the Stuttering” and hosts the podcast “Women Who Stutter: Our Stories”. She has presented many workshops on stuttering both regionally and nationally, and has spoken at three international stuttering events. Pam achieved Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) status in Toastmasters International. Pam works full time in a high school in the Albany, NY area as a recruiter and outreach specialist. Pam is on the Board of Directors of the National Stuttering Association in the USA, serving as Special Projects Co-Chair and also serves as Secretary for the International Stuttering Association Board of Directors.|
In this year 2017, the world doesn’t really understand stuttering. This is evidenced by children who stutter still getting picked on and teased by peers on the playground and at school. There is also evidence that adults still get mimicked, made fun of and laughed at by fellow adults. And there still appears to be workplace discrimination going on by employers who don’t understand stuttering, and who don’t hire or promote perfectly capable individuals just because they stutter. I believe the world still adheres to old myths that people who stutter are less intelligent than people who don’t stutter, or are nervous, shy, insecure, lack confidence or are emotionally unstable.
I talk to people who stutter regularly through my podcast “Women Who Stutter: Our Stories” (www.stutterrockstar.com) and my role as host/facilitator for Stutter Social (www.stuttersocial.com). People share with me that they often feel ignored and excluded when in conversation with people who don’t stutter. They have shared with me that they get interrupted, that people finish their sentences for them or have people get impatient and roll their eyes at them as they are talking and stuttering.
Young people who are finishing school talk to me about having to go out and face job interviews, one of the most stressful speaking situations for people who stutter. They ask for advice as to how to handle the matter of stuttering if they are lucky enough to get an interview. They obsess over phone and Skype interviews, where time is pressured and the person who stutters feels they won’t be given the time to express themselves. They worry about whether they should disclose the stuttering at all during an interview, and if it should be at the beginning of the interview, as a disclaimer, or somewhere in the middle when it’s become pretty obvious that the person stutters.
Job seekers also worry about mentioning stuttering on their resumes or in their cover letters. They think if they do they might automatically be discounted. And they worry about not disclosing and coming off as dishonest for not having mentioned it.
Young adults who stutter have shared with me that don’t know how to make small talk, how to socialize or how to join in a conversation. They haven’t had practice with those skills that many people take for granted because the person who stutters may have spent years trying to hide their stuttering and therefore never practiced the art of small talk or joining in. They have also shared with me that they are not good listeners because they are always rehearsing what they are going to say next instead of truly listening to the other person talking.
It can seem pretty hopeless to “move forward” as a person who stutters in a world that doesn’t fully understand stuttering. So what can be done? How can we create a world that better understands stuttering?
I think the following 5 ways can help the world better understanding stuttering and also create an easier, gentler world for people who stutter to live in.
- Schools need to include stuttering in the awareness activities that they do for diversity and inclusion. Teachers often plan lessons around different physical disabilities, the “easy” ones that we can see. Once children understand about a difference, they generally move forward and treat it as a “non-issue.” Similar training needs to be provided for unseen differences, including stuttering. When stuttering is well explained, most youngsters and older kids can grasp that it’s not something to be made fun of. I have gone into middle schools and done presentations on bullying prevention, with an emphasis on differences and stuttering. I’ve given kids a chance to “try on” stuttering, to experiment with it and feel how it feels to get stuck on a word. (I’ve used Chinese finger traps to illustrate what it’s like to get stuck.) Schools would be very open to having a guest speaker come in who could explain stuttering to their students. It would be a win-win situation: the non-stuttering children would gain an understanding of stuttering and the child who stutters will feel less anxious and perhaps not prone to hide his stuttering.
- Employers need to be trained on stuttering so that we can have more inclusive workplaces for people who stutter. These days, people who stutter are still discriminated against in the workplace. As noted above, job seekers who stutter often can’t get past the hiring stage because hiring managers and Human Resources staff believe the negative stereotypes about stuttering. Advocacy associations need to step in and provide awareness training and myth busting to employers so that people who stutter can get a fair opportunity in the job search process. Also, people who stutter themselves can be hugely instrumental in helping employers see that people who stutter can be effective communicators. People who stutter who are employed should try to be open about their stuttering to supervisors and co-workers and show how they can effectively contribute to the company’s bottom line. People who stutter need to be brave enough to “come out” at work and show colleagues that stuttering is just another way of talking. Perhaps increased training and awareness in workplaces will allow for people who stutter to feel comfortable enough to do just that – “come out” at work.
- The media needs to consult with actual people who stutter when considering portraying stuttering on stage or on the small or large screens. I know that some media production companies have indeed done that when making such films as “Rocket Science” and “The King’s Speech.” Those portrayals turned out to be more accurate than past portrayals, where stuttering was seen only in a negative or comedic light. Including people who stutter in media projects will ensure authentic portrayals. Even more so would be the actual casting of people who stutter into acting roles on stage or screen. That would go a long way towards increasing understanding of stuttering, as many parts of the world now have easy access to media. This could also include having people who stutter openly be highlighted in the news, on the radio or interviewed for print journalism. In 2017, we do not have enough positive role models in the media who actually openly stutter. We have a lot of celebrities who “used to stutter,” but they don’t necessarily inspire confidence in people who deal with stuttering every day.Other differences are making headway in the media – a major US network TV station has a program called “Speechless” in which an actor who really has cerebral palsy plays a like character. I think people are drawn to the show because of its authenticity. And Netflix debuted a new program called “Atypical” that deals with a character with autistism. To ensure an accurate depiction of autism, Netflix show creators worked with a professor of special education at California State University Channel Islands.
- More people who stutter need to be willing to speak to future Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) while they are in school and learning about stuttering. Many colleges and universities that offer communications science disorder programs only require that students take one, that’s just ONE, course in fluency. That is hardly enough to learn about the complexities of stuttering, which is more than just a physical disorder. Future SLPs need to learn about stuttering from people who live the experience every day. Good professors will bring people in from the community that they know who stutter. If there isn’t a known community of people who stutter in the local area, good professors will reach out and ask people who stutter to speak to a class remotely via Skype or Zoom or some other platform. I’ve done that with several classes for a number of years. It’s very satisfying to share my story and know that people who will touch the future are actually learning from it. And I can always tell that the students enjoy the experience from the good questions they ask and the feedback they offer. It can’t always be the same people talking to students, though. More people who stutter need to take the risk and do this, as it has a measurable impact on the future success of these young SLP students who will be working with children who stutter, who may grow up to become adults who stutter.
- People who stutter need allies who don’t stutter to help the stuttering community teach the world about stuttering. Yes, that’s right – we need fluent allies who understand what stuttering is, know how to interact and listen to someone who is struggling to speak. Allies can be spouses, significant others, parents, siblings, other family members, friends, supervisors and co-workers. Having more people in our circles who understand stuttering will help to exponentially increase the numbers of people beyond our circles that understand stuttering. People who stutter can’t do it alone, as we’ve seen in today’s world. We’ve all heard that saying “it takes a village.” Well, I think it will take a village and then some to help the world better understand the experience of stuttering. If we have allies who support us, help us advocate and help us teach about stuttering, I think we’ll go a long way toward reaching the goal of a world that understands stuttering. It starts with me and you and the people we know. And it starts with talking about stuttering. We can’t hide it from the world if we want the world to understand us.
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