Defining Ourselves for the World (Elizabeth Wislar)

About the author: Elizabeth Wislar is a person who stutters and a teacher of students with disabilities. She lives in Athens, GA USA with her husband and daughter. She loves to draw, write, run, cook and read. She is a co-leader for the Athens NSA chapter and writes a blog about being a teacher who stutters.

Stuttering is one of my essential qualities. It is as important to me as my gender or identity as a Chicagoan (though I no longer live there). I don’t remember a time when stuttering wasn’t present in my life. It has followed me everywhere, sometimes as an annoyance and more recently as a friend. It permeates every aspect of my life. I would venture to say that stuttering is something that personally defines me.

At conferences, in support group meetings, and on stuttering websites I often hear people declare that “stuttering doesn’t define” them.  Many people feel it is important that the fluent world look beyond their stuttering and see the person underneath – and I agree. To be defined only by our disabilities can be extremely limiting, however, is it really possible to identify as a person who stutters and not have it be a thing that defines you? What if we think of the word ‘define’ to mean something other than limiting? We need to look past the idea that definitions set boundaries. Could we think of ‘defining’ as giving us a framework with which to see the world and have the world understand us? Definitions help us better understand and build meaning in our lives.

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of identity in terms of not just our personal definitions but also our collective definition. After all, people who stutter do have many shared experiences.  A collective definition or collective identity is key in forming a unified group. This group is responsible for shaping what the world knows about the people who form it. People will know us through our collective identity as people who stutter. We are our own best representatives. When we act in unity we can accomplish our goals more effectively. This is key to maintaining our sense of groundedness in the face of discrimination.

What do we want to do with our collective social action? Foremost, we need more education and social change. We can do this through writing, art, Public Service Announcements, podcasts, and insisting our voices be heard and our wants be represented through radio, television and social media. We need to find fluent allies to join the cause and to work together with us. We need to reach out to Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) and training programs and bring them information. We need to find other people who stutter in the most remote parts of the world and let them know they are part of a large and wonderful group. We need to give them the support they need to help them find their voices, be that through empowerment, therapy, self-help and support groups, or some other means. We need to make sure everyone has equal opportunities for education and employment and fair treatment under the law. By building reciprocal bridges to other disenfranchised communities and sharing what we know and have learned, we can achieve our collective goals.

Much of the work of forming a collective group is already done. There are many organizations of people who stutter worldwide – even an international association. Meetings of people who stutter are held every day. It is through these organizations, associations and small meetings that we can begin to work collectively toward a world that better understands our experience and helps us move forward.

One place to start is at the local level. Local support group meetings can be a great place to mobilize interested individuals. Consider adding a social action event to each meeting agenda. This could be as simple as simple as a few volunteers passing out stuttering awareness information at a street festival. Or it could be more involved, like pitching a story to a well known podcast or writing an article for a popular magazine. Many conference workshops and presentations begin by a few interested individuals coming together. These actions will help us show the world what it means to stutter.

Because stuttering is such an important part of my life, I see it as my duty to help the world understand stuttering and the struggles and joys that come from being a person who stutters. I fear that perpetuating the idea that we shouldn’t let stuttering define us is keeping us isolated, and hinders our ability to share a collective experience. It is this collective identity that will help us create societies that understand stuttering.

 2,066 total views,  1 views today


Defining Ourselves for the World (Elizabeth Wislar) — 42 Comments

  1. Hi Elizabeth. You bring up a very interesting idea: “‘defining’ as giving us a framework with which to see the world and have the world understand us” instead of understanding the word in its sense of implying limitations. For sure stuttering has defined me, and continues to do so. It is behind most my actions and behaviours in the past, and certainly influences my present and future. Still, is there a difference in saying that stuttering defines me or in saying that stuttering is simply a part of me? I guess that what you are doing is making us aware of the limiting affects of the way we think about the word “defining”. You are opening up the boundaries, and showing us a different, and enlightening way of resolving the question of whether stuttering defines us, and helping create a world that understands stuttering in the process. Thank you!

    • Thank you Hanan!
      I think that letting stuttering define us gives us a better platform on which to improve our own condition (fair treatment) and connect to other disenfranchised communities.

  2. Elizabeth, Wow, what a great contribution! I liked everything but especially liked your suggestion that you add a call to action at small meetings of people who stutter. That gives people power to make a small change and as we know, small changes lead to bigger, lasting change. I’m so glad you are part of this vibrant community.

    • Thank you Pam,
      There are so many stuttering support meetings that have a small number of regular attendees. I think those groups could have a lot of potential.

  3. Elizabeth, what a thought-provoking paper! I am reminded of Joe Biden’s remark that stuttering was “the single most defining thing in my life,” despite having been elected Vice President of the United States and having lost his wife and daughter in a car accident. Like you and Vice President Biden, I feel that stuttering, more than anything else, “defines” me, too. To me, no other word communicates how stuttering may permeate all aspects of a person’s life. The idea that allowing stuttering to define us can spark connection and prevent social isolation – and maybe even help society understand stuttering – will keep my gears turning for a while. All the best to you.

    • Thank you for your comments Rob,
      I find Biden’s remark iteresting as well, but perhaps because he seems so quiet about being a person who stuttered. He may open up about it to the stuttering community, but correct me if I’m wrong, he never spoke much about it from the platform of VP.

  4. Hi Elizabeth,

    You mentioned that you as well as a collective group need to bring information to SLPs. I know this may be an exhaustive list. However, as an SLP graduate student I would love your input. What information do you find crucial for an SLP to know in order to have a successful relationship and a positive impact with an adult client who stutters?

    • Thanks for reading. I can only speak from personal experience, but I think it’s important for the SLP to know exactly what the client wants and work on that. I also think it’s important for SLPs to know that not all people who stutter want or need therapy. Therapy should always be a choice.

  5. Hello Elizabeth,

    First, I’d like to commend you on such a beautifully written paper. I agree with many of your ideas wholeheartedly. It is true that we are our own best representatives. Advocating for yourself and others locally is the first step in making a real change. On a larger scale, global change can help us integrate our perspectives on stuttering with many other multicultural perspectives. This is why I agree that sharing experiences is an amazing way to connect with others and realize that stuttering is not a limitation. I believe that it is important to get more information about stuttering to Speech-Language Pathologists. I am a graduate student in a Speech-Language Pathology program. This field would greatly benefit from having more information about stuttering because then we would better understand the thoughts, feelings, hopes, and goals of people who stutter. I know that you have said that stuttering does define you in the sense that it enables you to share your experiences with others. Was there ever a time in which you didn’t want stuttering to define you in this way? If so, when did you decide that letting stuttering define you didn’t have to mean that it would limit you?

    • Savannah,
      I absolutely agree that we need to reach out to SLPs and SLP programs. If you haven’t, you should read the paper by Chani Markel.

      I spend a good part of my adult life (late teens to my thirties) being covert about stuttering and avoiding any situation where I thought I might get ‘outed’. It has been through my connection with the NSA (National Stuttering Association) and through work I’ve done with AIS (American Institute for Stuttering)that I have gotten to where I am now.

      Thank you for your comments.

      • Elizabeth,

        In reading through some of the articles posted this year, I’ve found that many authors here/ people who stutter have felt more apt to openly stutter after working with organizations such as the National Stuttering Association or after becoming a part of discussion boards and support groups. I’m thrilled that you have gotten to the place that you are at now and use various platforms to continue to pave the way for increasing awareness and understanding of stuttering. I hope that one day I’ll be able to work alongside members of a stuttering association to help empower others and remind them that their potential is unlimited. Thank you for all that you have done and continue to do.

  6. Hello Elizabeth!

    This article has definitely helped me to rethink the concept of how a stutter “defines” a person with stuttering. It is interesting that you bring up the idea of altering the typical way others view stuttering as a negative defining factor into one that is more optimistic and empathetic. Was there a specific time or event in your life that made such an impact that it made you realize that stuttering doesn’t need to be a limited defining factor?

    • Lauren,
      Thank you for your comment. As far as a defining moment, I would say it’s been more gradual. I spent a long time hiding my stutter and avoiding words, activities and even relationships out of fear. It has been through my involvement with the National Stuttering Association that I have changed my viewpoint.

  7. I appreciate the comment you made: To be defined only by our disabilities can be extremely limiting, however, is it really possible to identify as a person who stutters and not have it be a thing that defines you? I have considered this same question from an alternate perspective. What if one day I have cancer, I don’t want to be defined as “Becky, the person with cancer”. I’m still just Becky who has certain characteristics, traits, ideas, and abilities with goals I want to achieve. Sharing experiences with others definitely brings new perspectives and changes attitudes toward so many “disabilities”. Thank you also for pointing out that you as an individual have chosen to say stuttering is a part of your defining characteristics which enables you to share your experience with many others.

    • Becky,
      Thanks for your comment. I think the big difference between identifying as a person who stutters vs a person with cancer, is my perspective that stuttering isn’t an illness or something to dread. I like being a stutterer. I don’t think I would like being a person with cancer. That perspective makes it much easier, but it also is an important one, because not all people who stutter like being people who stutter.


  8. Elizabeth, thank you for your contribution. I greatly enjoyed reading your take on this issue. I found myself agreeing with many of your points. I understand your stance on finding meaning through disabilities or conditions that have greatly impacted your life. I’ve heard similar discussions beginning to take place in other disability communities. Do you have any advice to encourage individuals to become more active at the local level? Thank you!

    • Thanks for you comment!
      I think a good place to begin is to look for an organization in your country for people who stutter or people with disabilities. That organization can hopefully help you find people in your local area who have meetings or get-togethers. If nothing like that exists, you can always place a classified ad in a local news source and suggest a place/date/time to meet others. There are lots of pages for people who stutter on Facebook and other social media. You can post on those pages and ask if there is anyone from your area. Stutter Social is also another great place to meet other people from all over the world who stutter. If you google the term, you will find their web page.
      I hope this helps

  9. Elizabeth,

    Throughout your article, I kept saying to myself, “Yes, yes, yes!” This article is truly inspirational to people to stutter. It explains that stuttering withholds no barrier to the person you are. What better way of promoting stuttering awareness and advocating for this population than social action? Illinois State University is where I attend graduate school. Here, we have the special interest group, “National Stuttering Association.” We strive to advocate for those who stutter in our community, ensuring voices are heard throughout campus. This group not only includes those who stutter, but future Speech Language Pathologists. Both people who stutter and future SLPs are able to share stories and emotions in a comfortable, nonjudgmental environment during our support group meetings. I wholeheartedly believe those who stutter should be reaching out to us future SLPs to bring more information. This ensures successful intervention outcomes. Overall, continue encouraging those who stutter to share their collective experiences and identities.

    • Emily,
      I’m glad you are involved with the NSA! It’s actually a very large organiztion. Perhaps we will meet some day at a conference.

  10. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective as a PWS. I think it’s so important for people who stutter to recognize the difference between their stutter “defining” them and their stutter “limiting” them. As a future SLP, what kind of information do you think we need to help other people who stutter to come into their own identity. And how can we, as people who may not stutter, align ourselves with them in solidarity without infringing on the community?

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Claire,
      Thanks for reading. I would encourage you to read many othe the other papers and words submitted this year. I worked in collaboration with a fluent SLP (Hope Gerlach) to create a comic geared toward your exact question. It is in the bottom section.

  11. Hi Elizabeth,

    I enjoyed reading your post and sharing your perspective as a PWS. I have never thought of your perspective of “defining” and the idea that this does not limit an individual. I also liked how you mentioned connecting with people in remote areas who stutter. This is essential to building support systems and educating individuals about stuttering. Sharing a collective experience as a community is an idea I had not previously thought about, but I think that it is important in bringing awareness to the community. You brought up very interesting points about reaching out to SLPs and SLP programs to bring awareness to stuttering. This is very important because by discussing with SLP programs the future of therapy may be shaped. I am currently a graduate student and was wondering what are some of the most important points you would share with future SLPs? What would be a word of advice to future SLPs to be effective therapists and advocates for people who stutter?

    • Thanks for reading and for your comments.

      Reaching out to people who stutter and learning their thoughts on therapy is a great step. I hesitate to give advice since my opinion is only mine. I think each individual is different. I think in working with young people, the best thing to do is give them options. Do they want to work on stuttering less or differently or do they want to teach others about stuttering? If they don’t know what their options are, they can’t express their wishes. I hope this helpts.

  12. Thanks, Elizabeth for recommending my paper. I really agree that we need to do more as PWS to reach out to the SLP community to educate. 🙂

  13. Hi Elizabeth,

    What an inspirational article you shared. I am currently a graduate student at Appalachian State. My fluency disorder class is taught by a professor that stutters. Many of your points mentioned in your article have been discussed in our class. We have many discussions on what is stuttering, how to call individuals who stutter, perspectives and feelings of people who stutter. I enjoyed you mentioning the idea of ‘defining’ stuttering. If you don’t mind sharing, I would love to know if you ever had speech therapy? If so what techniques were used during therapy and were they beneficial? As a future SLP, I want to learn more about techniques to use during therapy that are effective and enjoyable. I feel that so many SLPs have little experience with stuttering and therapy sessions are focused around getting rid of the stutter. I believe therapy should be focused around self-awareness.

    Thanks for sharing!
    – Kaitlyn

    • Kaitlyn,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I did have speech therapy starting at about age 5, but quit in middle school. I went back for about a year in my 20s. I have returned now and receive therapy at the American Institute for Stuttering. This final place is the only therapy that has really helped me. I don’t think the therapists I saw as a young person knew much about stuttering at all. My therapy now focuses on acceptance, desensitization and comfortable communication. I don’t work on techniques.

  14. Hi Elizabeth,

    I really enjoyed reading your post about how stutterers should view themselves, as well as how others should view stutterers. I liked the idea that being “defined” as a stutterer can and should mean something other than limiting. I think that people are very quick to judge others and to size people up, and it is important to realize that what may seem like a “disability” actually helps to define a person and make them unique. I was wondering if you can share how having a stutter affected you as a child and what advice you can give to future SLP’s to help us help our stuttering clients?

    • Hadassah,
      Thanks for reading and for your question. I was lucky enough to have a parent who stutters and was a successful college professor. Having this role model helped me know my stutter shouldn’t prevent me from pursuing my dreams. However, I was teased a lot by my peers and even treated unfairly by some teachers. By the time I was in high school and college I was very covert and tried to hide that I stutter. It has taken me years to accept my disability and get to the place to find pride in it. Now I feel dedicated to helping others find this path.

  15. Hi Elizabeth,

    I am currently a graduate student studying Speech-Language Pathology, and I really enjoyed reading your paper. I found it interesting your concept of “defining” and how it impacts a person who stutters. Sometimes the label can define a person, and I liked your point how it shouldn’t be limiting, but rather a gateway to a better understanding of stuttering and having it build meaning in people’s lives. I will definitely think about this when working with my future clients.

    Thank you for your insight,
    Emma Steines

  16. Thank you for sharing! I found your thoughts enjoyable to read, especially the part about the concept of defining something and how it usually impacts a person who stutters. I love how you embrace your stutter and mentioned how stuttering is a part of who you are. I feel more people should have this quality! I agree with your point about how stuttering should not limit a person’s abilities. They should advocate and help those develop a better understanding of stuttering to make a difference in the world.

  17. I love your idea of looking at the word, “define”, as something other than just limiting. You took a word that people sometimes unknowingly give a negative connotation to and you made it into something positive. Creating a collective identity with both people who stutter and allies, such as speech language pathologists, could be beneficial in educating society about the world of stuttering. We could begin to change the stigmas and stereotypes, and start to create a framework for stuttering that is not seen as something limiting. I also love how you included finding people in remote areas of the world who stutter. By bringing everyone together and creating a network of support, stuttering advocacy can begin to reach populations where stuttering is very misunderstood.

  18. Elizabeth,

    Your writing prompted me to look up the word “define.” Some of the synonyms listed were: explain, expound, interpret, describe, clarify, give the meaning of, put into words. I really like how you broadened “define” as more than marking out the boundaries or limits of a person. Define really means describing a person, giving the meaning of a person, putting their experiences into words. Thank you for sharing your story!

    Ana Paula

  19. Elizabeth,

    Thank you for sharing your insight and experiences. I find your viewpoint on ‘defining’ very interesting as I had always heard people say “stuttering doesn’t define me” in the past. I am currently a graduate student to become an SLP, and learning all the different viewpoints people have will help me with future clients. I also love your enthusiasm about support groups and educating people about stuttering. Everyone deserves a voice, which is why I plan to educate myself and others to help increase opportunities for everyone.

  20. Hi Elizabeth,

    What a wonderful way to begin this “reaching out” and “spreading the word” by having this published with the international conference. People world wide can and will hear your voice on this. I am a graduate student to become an SLP and I love your incite and feeling into redefining the word define, too much of what we do as human’s is look at things as if they are in a box and isolated from everything else. I also truly love your take on stuttering defining a person. While I do see the viewpoint of people who say this very inspiring, I also find it inspiring to see and hear about when people say stuttering does define them, that it is in their definition. But as you said, a definition in this case isn’t so clear cut, its personal and has many contributions to what made that person who they are.

  21. Elizabeth,

    I admire your positivity in accepting and embracing the impact stuttering has had on your life. You ask the question: “Could we think of ‘defining’ as giving us a framework with which to see the world and have the world understand us?” I think this is a very interesting thought and one that could be applied to many challenges we all face throughout life. Throughout your post I can sense you are a strong advocate for stuttering and I agree with your stance on how to create the movement through various social action opportunities.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  22. Hello Mrs. Wislar,
    I am a first-year graduate student with the hopes of becoming a speech-language pathologist. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thought-provoking article. It brought up one topic that I had not ever thought about before; is it okay for an individual to be “defined” as a stutterer? Your personal insights have definitely shaped how I would now answer this question. I completely agree that the label should be thought of as a framework to help others better understand stuttering and PWS to connect with other stutterers. This is a great concept and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from you.
    Thank you for sharing,

  23. “Stuttering is one of my essential qualities.” Loooove that quote!!!

    I am the one saying “stuttering is not who I am, just something I do”. But after reading your paper, maybe I’m not all true to myself. For yes, if I would stop stuttering, I’d loose a part of myself. And because I stutter, I can make a difference. Educate. Advertise. Coach. Build. Tear down.

    I never thought of it that way, but yes, stuttering is one of my most essential qualities. Thanks for making me see that. And thanks for doing what you do. You’re an amazing person who is a life changer to so many.

    Hugs and keep talking!

    Anita S. Blom, Sweden