About the Author:
David Alpuche is a photographer/entrepreneur from Mexico City. He has won multiple speaking awards in Toastmasters, was named “Chapter Leader of the Year” by the National Stuttering Association, and is currently one of the leaders in To Be Like Me, a non-profit dedicated to breaking down the barriers that exist for those with disabilities and shed light on the positive impact of inclusion, ignite compassion, and foster awareness of the unique abilities of others. David likes to stay active by playing soccer, volleyball, and doing yoga. He speaks multiple languages and also likes to play chess, read, and listen to live music.
In 2017 I submitted my first paper for International Stuttering Awareness Day. In that paper, titled “It Starts with You,” I wrote about my life as a person who stutters up to that day; from my childhood not knowing what stuttering was, to my first experiences with therapy in my late 20s, to my discovery of the global stuttering community. The title of the paper, “It Starts With You,” came about because the theme that year was A World That Understands Stuttering, and I thought that if we, people who stutter, want a world that understand us, it’s precisely up to us to make it happen, one conversation at a time. A good summary would be my last paragraph:
“So, how do you create a world that understands stuttering?
In the past few years I have spoken about stuttering at three universities, talking to hundreds of speech language pathology students at a time. I’ve volunteered for research and also presented at both national and international conferences. I lead my local NSA chapter. I talk to people on the streets. I make jokes about it. The world wants to understand stuttering, it would just be easier if more people spoke about it. So speak, you must. A world that understands stuttering starts with you.”
Do you know what I’ve been doing since? Talking about stuttering… and I mean A LOT.
First, I still volunteer to talk about stuttering at universities. For the past few years I have been invited to speak about stuttering at every major university in Dallas/Fort Worth, and that has made me known enough that I was later invited to speak (in person or via zoom) at universities in California, Oklahoma, Kansas, New York and Florida. I’ve even talked about stuttering in Europe.
Let me tell you why this is important to me:
When I was in a bad place I was helped by a great Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP) that literally changed my life. The outgoing, social, and communicative person I am today is very recent. Growing up I always felt trapped inside my brain. I knew I was smart, but I had no way of communicating it to others. I had ideas to share, jokes to tell, and truths about myself that I never spoke out loud.
Like many people who stutter, more often than not I chose to not speak because trying to do it usually ended in:
C) Some other horrible feeling
D) All of the above.
Growing up with a stutter sucked. Before every interaction you get this jolt of anxiety, pessimism and self-hatred because you know it’s not going to go well. Stuttering can wreck your confidence, and as a result I hated talking. With a passion.
I felt that I missed out on so much, and not going to lie, deep down I feared I was going to miss out on things for the rest of my life. I thought that was my fate. I have met hundreds of people who stutter that feel or felt the same way, and you might know one without knowing it.
I was almost 30, when one day a Speech Pathologist found me, and out of nowhere asked me “do you want some help with that?” And boom, just like that she literally changed my life!
But, I’ll start with the obvious: She didn’t cure my stutter.
By academic standards I still stutter pretty severely. I still get blocked saying my name 93% of the time. I can’t do an easy onset to save my life.
The twist is that I don’t care anymore. She did teach me techniques, and they do help, but getting rid of my stutter is not my goal in life anymore. I’m too busy living life and having fun now.
The most important thing that my SLP, Dr. Freeman (you know I have to mention your name every time!), did for me was that she helped me understand stuttering. She made me realize that stuttering is something you could learn about, and honestly, even after doing it for 25 years, I was very ignorant about it. I knew how it felt, but not what it was.
So I learned all I could. I had a ton of questions, which to the best of her ability she tried to answer. She recommended books and websites to me. Maybe more importantly, she also encouraged me to explore the subject myself, first encouraging me to write about it, and later by inviting me to speak at the university where she worked.
First of all, I had never spoken in front of an audience before. As a matter of fact I avoided doing exactly that all my life. But there I was, in front of a group of close to a hundred students telling them about myself and answering questions about stuttering for an hour… when I got it.
It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that a great Speech Pathologist like Dr. Freeman is not born, he/she is made. She had to get her knowledge somewhere, over many years, and it wasn’t until then, in front of those students, that I got that they didn’t know much about stuttering… yet. They were just some kids trying to figure out their careers like most people in college. To them, I was the expert, and I felt a deep responsibility to try my best to explain what I knew about it.
There are hundreds of Speech Pathologists who leave college every year, and some of them graduate without ever talking to a person who stutters. I feel that taking the time to talk to those students, even if it’s only for an hour or two, has the potential to spark their curiosity and lead them to understand better what it is like to have a stutter.
Since then, I have spent the last 9 years talking to every university that has been kind enough to invite me, and I will continue to do it as long as I have the time because I believe that an hour of my time has the potential to help a kid or adult with a stutter 5,10, 20 years down the road. I’ve seen it happen already, when students I talked to years ago reach out to me to thank me for my time when they have to treat somebody with a stutter.
Now, how does this relate to you? Well, I don’t know you, my lovely reader, but if you are here it is because you stutter, or you have an interest in stuttering, so you are in position to help the cause.
Obviously, I don’t expect you to follow my path. I always had a desire to speak in front of an audience, so giving me a stage to talk about something so uniquely mine felt like a dream come true. But, you can do the same on a smaller scale.
If you stutter, do you know how to explain it to others? If not, take a moment to educate yourself. The National Stuttering Association, The Stuttering Foundation, and of course, The International Stuttering Association, have many free resources available. Get comfortable with stuttering. This will take time, but I learned that the more comfortable you are with your identity, the less it bothers you when someone gets you wrong.
Over the years I learned that the more I opened myself to others about my stuttering and my struggles with it, the more empathy I experienced from the people around me, and the more they used my experiences and stories as a starting point when they encountered somebody else who stuttered in their daily lives.
Every time one of us volunteers to speak about stuttering, in any context, we have the opportunity to educate people and make it easier for the next one. You know how people that do CrossFit can’t stop talking about CrossFit? Become that person. Just with stuttering, and 95% less annoying.
Do something, do it consistently, and things will start to happen.
Finally, thanks to my work with universities, last year I was approached by a newly formed non-profit called To Be Like Me (TBLM), based in Dallas. TBLM was founded by three health professional (one of them an SLP) with a passion for spreading awareness and compassion for people with differences and disabilities. We have people with dyslexia, autism, chromosome differences, vision loss, hearing loss, with muscular dystrophy, … and 3 people like me, who stutter. They have formed a very special team of people from all walks of life, with the shared mission of educating people about what it is to be like us.
The program is designed for school aged children, and through in-person and online interactions, led by us, we create learning opportunities that foster empathy, compassion and a desire to be more inclusive.
It’s amazing seeing the curiosity of children when they meet somebody different. We always hear people say “kids are mean,” but they are not mean, they are just ignorant about the specific challenges that we face. But most of them want to learn, and it’s heartwarming seeing how, with just one hour in front of somebody different, they learn that we are all the same, and we all just want to be accepted, understood and loved.
I think these conversations can have an impact in future generations.
The truth is that if we do not explain, we can never be understood. So like I said years ago: start today, one conversation at a time.
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