|About the Author: By night Nina G is a comedian performing at comedy clubs and keynote speaker. By day she is a counselor at a California community college where she works with student with disabilities. In 2015 she premiered her one person show Going Beyond Inspirational and produced the first ever comedy compilation album of all comedians with disability aptly titled Disabled Comedy Only. Her TEDx Talk, The Everyday Ally, is helping to teach people without disabilities to be effective allies. Summer 2019 Nina will release her second book Stutterer Interrupted: The Making of a Stuttering Stand Up Comedian. Learn more about Nina G at www.NinaGcomedian.com.|
Excerpt from the upcoming book Stutterer Interrupted: The Making of a Stuttering Stand Up Comedian. Modified for the ISAD Online Conference.
I have noticed that a large segment of the non-disabled population possess a miraculous superpower: whenever they are in the presence of someone with a disability, they are suddenly endowed with a PhD in that person’s condition.
People who stutter are no less immune to the harassment of these self-appointed experts. Consider the following anecdote: I was with my friend Michelle, having a casual (and private) conversation at Starbucks. Michelle has rheumatoid arthritis and uses a wheelchair. I, of course, was stuttering up a storm. So when this young guy started looking over at us, I knew it had to be for one of two reasons: either we are both so incredibly hot that he can’t keep his eyes off us or he’s itching to share a secret cure to one of our conditions. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the latter.
He approached us in an awkward manner and began his spiel. Odds were 50-50 in determining whether me or Michelle would be the subject of his lecture. I guess it was my lucky day as he dispensed with the free elocution lessons. His advice was your typical, run-of-the-mill fare: “just breathe,” “slow down and think about what you are saying,” that sort of thing. When I thanked him for the free advice with an implied “now get out of my face,” he lingered. Maybe he was waiting for me to bow down and wash his feet with my hair in humble gratitude. Once we got rid of him, Michelle exclaimed, “Oh my God! For once I wasn’t the one getting advice!” Michelle spent most of her time around able-bodied people so she was used to being the odd one out. Never before did someone practically climb over her wheelchair to comment on someone else’s disability. What we both witnessed that day is a phenomenon I like to call stuttersplaining.
Stuttersplaining occurs when someone who has never personally experienced stuttering themselves decides to give a lecture about it to someone who has. Somehow, the person stuttering hasn’t thought of things like “slow down and breathe.” We needed someone’s guidance to think up that one!
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people to be afraid to talk about stuttering. We need to talk about it to remove social stigma and misinformation. But here’s the thing – unless I bring up the issue of my stuttering, I would like to stick to the discussion at hand and not derail into unnecessary, awkward conversations. In other words, if I want advice on taking psychedelic mushrooms to cure my stutter, I will ask for it!
Consider this an open guide to stuttersplaining. Although it takes on many varieties, the underlying issue is always the same. As you read through the following examples, the non-stutterer might imagine themselves having to deal with these situations on a regular basis.
The TV Told Me
Stuttersplainers often like to back up their advice with citations. These include, “I was watching Dr. Oz…”, “Did you see on Oprah…”, “I have a friend who…”, and other classic hits. When a stutterer hears these words, we instinctively clench our orifices and brace for the incoming lecture on how we can be cured of our disfluencies. A graduate student once came up to me after I had just finished leading a workshop on disability awareness. His opener: “So I was watching NPR…” (how do you watch National Public Radio?) He went on to explain that, “stutterers don’t stutter when they talk to animals so could there be something there with that?” He hypothesized how dogs might be used to help stutterers become more fluent and perhaps resolve their stuttering entirely. In my most nurturing and educational manner, I attempted to guide him on what quality people who stutter like best about animals; they shut up and let us talk. Believe it or not, I’ve never had a dog try to finish my sentence for me.
Hippies and Religious Zealots
When the media isn’t triggering people to fix us, you can always count on good old religion. So many times people with disabilities encounter strangers wanting to lay hands on them and pray for a cure that will be a manifestation of God’s greatness. Regarding stuttering, I never understood why God would give me a stutter only to take it away through the power of some shouting guy’s sweaty palms. This guy is supposed to help me with my speech? He’s speaking in tongues!
Whenever someone brings up the topic of divine healing, I like to point out that Moses stuttered. Instead of curing him of his stutter, God suggested that Moses have his brother Aaron speak for him – the earliest Judeo-Christian example of an accommodation! So, if someone ever tries to pray for your fluency, you can tell them: “God didn’t cure Moses’ stutter; he’s probably not worried about mine.” And yes, I have totally said that to people.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where people claim to be “spiritual” instead of religious. I might not have God’s healing hands laid on me, but plenty of New Age hippies, yuppies, and yippies have their own magical ideas about how to fix a stutter. In my case it came from a massage therapist in Calistoga, land of the hot spring and mud bath. My family has been going there for generations. Before it was converted into a resort town for the Whole Foods crowd, Calistoga used to be a quaint vacation spot favored by working class Italians and Eastern European Jews in Northern California. I can still hear the old women yelling at me and my brother for splashing in the pool, afraid that it would mess up their bouffant hair-dos.
As I got older and more comfortable with the idea of being touched by a stranger, I started availing myself of the town’s many massage therapists. When they asked what parts of my body needed special attention, I would always request my jaw. It’s easily my most overworked muscle (too bad I can’t get the same tone in my stomach or butt cheeks!) One massage therapist—let’s call her Hippy Dippy Pippy—asked if I suffered from TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder). I explained that I stutter and it causes a lot of tension in my jaw area. Pippy then started to offer her own whimsical advice on stuttering. Hoping her rambles would result in extra massage time, I decided to indulge her. About halfway through the dissertation, Pippy asked, “do you stutter when you sing?”
“Nope,” I said, “singing engages a different part of the brain that isn’t affected by stuttering.”
“Well, singing is good for the soul,” Pippy said, glossing over my biological explanation of my own disability. “You need to sing! That will help you!”
Okay? If singing cures stuttering because it’s good for the soul, then I guess I stutter because there’s something wrong with my soul. Did I do something in a past life to make me talk like this? Mel Tillis and Bill Withers both stutter and they are singers. Their souls must be totally out of whack because not even their beautiful voices and lyrics make them fluent when they speak. Oh, their tarnished souls!
The unsolicited advice of strangers might seem well-meaning on the surface, but there’s a subtle hostility underneath. Their desire to fix us implies that we are broken, that the way we talk isn’t acceptable and needs to go away. Whether it’s someone telling my friend to put a live canary in his mouth (true story!), or American Idol judges telling a stuttering contestant to “just sing instead of talk,” these suggestions will never be helpful. If someone wants quack advice on how to get rid of a stutter, they’re more than entitled to seek it out… but unless they specifically ask you for help, please keep your remedies to yourself. Stuttering is a complex speaking style and is impacted by many factors. If there is ever a “cure” for stuttering, it’s not going to be discovered in the course of five minutes chatting on a massage table. And even if someone is a PhD brain scientist who knows what they’re talking about, that doesn’t make their unsolicited advice any less rude. We don’t let physicians walk up to random people and tell them they’re overweight; why should I have to endure that kind of treatment from an off-duty speech therapist?
One Sunday morning I was promoting one of my comedy shows on an AM radio station. During the program, a listener called in and explained how someone she knew “found true love and doesn’t stutter anymore.” Me and my friend who produced the segment, Valerie, couldn’t stop laughing about it afterwards. That poor lady was all grown up and still seeing the world through Disney cartoon logic. Who knew that this whole time I’ve been a passive Stuttering Beauty waiting for the kiss to wake me up from my dysfluent speech coma?
The woman who called the radio station is far from alone; a surprising number of people believe that stuttering is caused by lack of romantic and sometimes sexual fulfillment.
Sometimes the cure for stuttering comes in more sexualized ways.
My friend (let’s call him Virgil) is a young man who stutters. A few years ago we were on a long car ride and our conversation turned to relationships, which turned to me oversharing details about my previous relationships, which turned to me talking about sex in a frank and transparent manner because I am a liberated woman who survived Catholic school and that’s how I roll. My transparency must have created a safe atmosphere because Virgil felt comfortable telling me he was a virgin. Not because of religion or any kind of sexual hang-up; it just hadn’t happened yet. He had been on several dates and probably could have lost his virginity just to get it over with, but he didn’t want that. He was only 23 and still had plenty of time.
As we talked about it more, Virgil told me something else: “My therapist says that once I have sex, I’ll stop stuttering.”
I suppressed the urge to tell Virgil what I thought of his therapist and instead followed up with a neutral question (the kind good therapists are supposed to use): “how do you feel about that?” Virgil responded that he knew it was B.S., but his therapist helped him in other ways before so he let it slide. I responded, “Good because you know that’s messed up, right?”
I don’t know where Virgil’s therapist got the absurd idea that virginity causes stuttering but I would bet my money it was the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It wouldn’t be the first time a mental health professional ignored scientific literature and based their opinion on a movie. A different friend once had a therapist tell her that stuttering is caused by emotional trauma because “that’s what they said in The King’s Speech.” That’s like a marine biologist basing all their knowledge on Jaws. Actually, it’s a dumber conclusion because the characters in The King’s Speech are working with 1930s science. At least Jaws happened in the 70s. Anyway, back to the story.
Over the next couple weeks, Virgil and I joked about what his therapist said. Still, laughing about it didn’t make it any easier for me to accept. For most people, having sex for the first time is already an overload of expectations, anxieties, and emotions… imagine having someone put the cure for stuttering on top of all that! It made me angry to the point that I was ready to “devirginize” Virgil myself just to prove the therapist wrong, but the more rational side of me prevailed.
Virgil eventually started dating a woman and they seemed perfect for each other! As they grew closer and closer I knew nature would take its course. Then, one morning, I got the text.
“I still stutter.”
I immediately texted back.
“Keep trying for a cure! ;-)”
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