Well, I do declare! The power of assertiveness – Wendy Holcombe, Grant Meredith

Wendy HolcombeAbout the Authors:

Wendy Holcombe is an academic within the School of Education and proudly autistic. She is deeply invested in supporting pre-service teachers to understand and appreciate diversity, so they enter their profession as passionate advocates of social inclusion. Her research is focused on identifying effective ways of planning for equitable educational experiences for all learners.

Grant Meredith

Grant Meredith is an academic within the School of Engineering, Information Technology & Physical Sciences at Federation University Australia, speech coach, digital disruptor and social media influencer. He leads the applied Technologies for Empowering People for Participation in Society (TEPPS) research program where he enjoys making “assertive technologies” to empower people (including people who stutter).

Warner Bros. and their range of cartoon characters have taught many things regarding speech diversity and empowerment, albeit in a covert way. Prominent examples include Daffy Duck’s and Sylvester’s prominent lisps, Wile Coyote’s selective mutism, Elmer Fudd’s articulation problems and Yosemite Sam’s inability to control his speaking volume. The hero for all of us who stutter though of course is Porky Pig. In fact, in 1987 Gerald Johnson conducted a clinical study of Porky Pig cartoons and found that Porky’s characterisation somewhat accurately portrayed stuttering and in the cartoon lore it looked likely that he inherited it from his father. Putting aside the fact that the original voice actor Joe Dougherty was a person who stutters, Porky has continued to stutter ever since and like other speech impaired characters their speech has never been a negative focal point or clear tool of laughter. Their speech patterns have been portrayed as traits and not as impediments. But there is one character that we often forget about who’s wisdom can assist us to be stronger communicators and more assertive in the way that we view stuttering. That character is the blustery and loud rooster Foghorn Leghorn. 

So, what can we learn from such a character who is brash, bold, egotistical and arguably flying under the radar of cancel-culture? Well, it all revolves around one of his most famous running lines “I do declare!” One of the hottest debated topics within the stuttering world that is a point of continual debate and social media attention is that of whether you should “disclose” your stuttering when in a conversation or within specific situations such as a job interview, a date or a restaurant etc. Disclosure is a common strategy promoted around support groups and speech programs as a way of making the listener aware of your stuttering and in turn hopefully making you feel more speech-confident within that given situation. This paper proposes an alternative to disclosing that aligns more effectively with an empowering approach. 

The fundamental purpose of disclosure relates to how much of yourself you choose to share with others. Beneath the hesitation to disclose a condition or difference there often lies a fear of judgment based on stigma and impact of stereotypical assumptions. Feelings very relatable to a person who stutters. Disclosure suggests a process of revealing something secretive and is often associated with feelings of shame. At its heart disclosure can be passive and victimising, rarely associated with confidence, pride or identity. One alternative is to follow the example of Foghorn and embrace the assertiveness of “declaration”. 

Consider these dictionary definitions …

Disclose: Make (secret or new information ) known; Allow (something hidden) to be seen.

Declare: Say something in a solemn and emphatic manner; Acknowledge possession of.

Making a declaration is an empowering process. With chest high and feathers fluffed, we do solemnly and emphatically declare that we are proud of all of the unique characteristics that make us who we are. We also reject any negative associations with our condition and see no reason why it should be secret or hidden. We make this declaration from a position of confidence, knowing that we may be judged unfairly, but solid in our understanding that we deserve respect. We stand proudly in our own truth.

For the duration of our lives our condition has influenced how we communicate and interact with others. It does not define us, but it cannot be separated from who we are. There have been additional challenges but none that have prevented us from achieving our goals. We acknowledge these challenges but also embrace our many strengths. We celebrate differences and address our needs through enhanced abilities forged under pressure. Most importantly, we claim the right to be proud of who we are.

So when it comes to personal information do you disclose, declare or respectfully decline to share? That is the question! Declaration is not for everyone and I would caution others to consider the following questions before deciding the appropriate stance for themselves.

  1. Whose business is it? Do I need to share my personal information? 
  2. What are the possible impacts of declaring? Am I taking an unnecessary risk? 
  3. What are the benefits of declaring? Could I make a difference by taking this action? 
  4. Am I ready for the possible reactions, responses and ramifications of declaring? Can I stand proudly in my own truth?

Foghorn, Porky and friends all stepped into their experience with confident expectations, leaving no room for negative derision. They did not need to disclose or declare conditions because differences made no difference within their cartoon community. Perhaps in time the disclose or declare debate will no longer be an issue for us either. When diversity is celebrated, attributes of difference are embraced as aspects of typical human variation – no big deal – and not viewed as factors that divide, segregate and categorise. In the meantime, if you feel the need to disclose then consider a changed mindset, become proud, assertive and declare instead. 

 

Reference

Johnson, G. F. (1987). A clinical study of Porky Pig cartoons. Journal of fluency Disorders12(4), 235-238.

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Comments

Well, I do declare! The power of assertiveness – Wendy Holcombe, Grant Meredith — 41 Comments

  1. Very well said.

    When you embrace your flaws they can’t be used against you, and owning your stuttering (even the bad parts of it) is truly a game changer.

    You know how much I admire you, Grant, for truly embodying the spirit of owning your flaws and using them as fuel to succeed.

    Much love, man.

    • Great to hear from you David and great to hear your appreciation. All an author can hope is that at least one word has influenced the life positively of but a single reader. You also know how much I admire you brother and your continual influence on society in many ways.

    • Hi David
      I have been reflecting on your post for a couple of days now, trying to find the “right” words before I responded. Your message triggered an emotional reaction in me, and I needed to work out why.
      Firstly I do declare that although I do not identify as a stutterer, as a person experiencing life through autism I share the common challenge of communicating via a brain that works in mysterious ways.
      What hit me in your post was the word “flaws”. I am deeply saddened whenever confronted with deficit interpretations of attributes of human difference. Who is it that gets to decide what is ideal and what is flawed? – “They” do – the unnamed others who may judge us from a self-appointed position of superiority. Personally, I believe this needs to be challenged.
      While we are reflecting on the power of words we choose to use, can I suggest reframing the deficit conception of stuttering? Could it be considered a challenge in communication rather than a flaw in speech? Rising to the challenge is universally accepted as an admirable quality and a characteristic of strength. In contrast, accepting the label of “flawed” means perpetuating those unfair perceptions of being somehow inferior or less than.
      I choose to consider my autism as an enhancement, not a flaw. Throughout life I have found myself in countless challenging situations resulting from a different social and communication skillset. I have felt the judgement, the frustration, the embarrassment, the confusion – but rising to the challenge of resolving those feelings has given me character strengths I could not have forged any other way. I am who I am because of the growth born from adversity.
      To be truly empowered, I believe we all need to become the heroes of our own story, not flawed characters in somebody else’s.
      I have read your work David and see no evidence of the flaws of which you speak. Could it be that perhaps what is flawed is the world that says that one style of communication is better than another?
      … and in conversation, is it fair to label the person who needs additional time to communicate as flawed, when the other who lacks the patience to listen escapes that label? To quote Foghorn once more, that seems to me to be about as sharp as a bowling ball.
      (Apologies for the novel length response – You just got me thinking …)

  2. Hi Wendy and Grant, I love this central message. I agree disclosure is a loaded word and declaring is a better. I’ve also used sharing as well, recently.

    I’m quite interested in how the idea of forced intimacy from the wider disability community may also apply to stammerers when we need to share very personal things about our stammers in order to access reasonable adjustments.

    • Hey Patrick! It has been too long. Yes, to access reasonable adjustments we need to share and declare. Such a process can be very confronting for all involved. To bares one’s soul just a little more than usual can be challenging. That is why we need pride, confidence and the knowing that we deserve the right to be able to pursue achievements

    • Hi Patrick
      While the world continues to be an uneven platform we do need to pursue reasonable adjustments in order achieve equitable opportunities. Unfortunately this does establish an “us and them” divide which can perpetuate “othering”, setting those who need reasonable adjustments apart from those who do not.
      Sharing is a lovely unifying word that emphasizes connections and relationships to me. There really is more that unites us than divides us if we step into our shared spaces with mutual respect and positive regard. Sharing also carries a sense of benevolence – “I have something of value which I offer to you” – It carries an unspoken expectation that the inherent value will be recognized. Definitely something empowering in that!

  3. Wendy and Grant,

    Thank you! now I know the difference between “disclose” and “declare”!
    I truly believe that declaration is a powerful way to educate and to feel more confortable during the different interactions.

    Regards,
    Cynthia

    • I am honoured to have been praised by the great Cynthia Dacillo Senaga! All we need is a shift of mindset to stop hiding in the shadows, to show no shame and to face the world with a confident smile.

      • Hi Grant,
        Thank you for your kindness.
        I love your words: “stop hiding”, “no shame” and “confident smile”. ISAD is a great way to make it a bit easier for people who stutter.

        Kind regards

    • Hi Cynthia
      I do believe education is the pathway forward; on a personal, community, national and global level. I loved this little gem when I first came across the concept of disclose or declare. It has been like dropping a pebble in the pond to see it rippling out to others. Sometimes we underestimate the power of making a simple change in our own thoughts and actions.

  4. This is a great perspective to help us better understand how these characters have influenced our society.

    My question for you though is that if you truly believe declaration is not for everyone and need to weigh certain risks, don’t you think that slows down the progress we are making as a community? I.e. don’t we want to grow our community as much as possible and people to declare to educate others?

    Thanks for bringing to light such a hot topic!

    • Hi Kunal,
      Good question!It is certainly not my intention to deter people from declaring or to slow progress toward social justice, but I do believe that community benefit should not come at the expense of personal cost. Everyone has the right to choose their own timing when sharing personal information.
      The caution emerges from my own experience of proudly declaring my new diagnosis of autism in my 50s. At the time I was working as an autism coach within the Department of Education. While I was ready to embrace new understandings of my life experience, my colleagues, friends and family were not. I was totally unprepared for the shift in the way I was perceived and treated. I expected my revelation to challenge people’s limited perceptions of autism -(after all, wasn’t I a well-respected Regional Advisor?) – but instead, their stereotypical lenses changed their perceptions of me. This came as such a shock I needed to take a week of work to process the experience and fortify myself to once again to tackle the challenge of educating others.
      Do I regret speaking out? Not in the slightest! I bounced back because I am fiercely determined to make a difference. I did however, wish I had been pre-warned of the possible reactions of others before stepping forth with my truth. I now have my Teflon armor at the ready so that misconceptions and judgments just slide right off without sticking.
      My experience is not as a person who stutters, so I would be fascinated to understand more about similarities and differences from within this community. Are there similar risks that people should consider when choosing their moment to declare or share?

    • Great to hear from you Kunal. Declaration is a personal choice, as is disclosure. Personally I have never really disclosed my stuttering. It has never been kept secret. I a covert overt. In a sense that I overly stutter, but generally people I engage with in society to not openly identify me as a PWS. I do not walk around the streets telling everyone my private business. I have declared my stuttering though when required it I thought it were relevant to the task at hand. This to me is about a change of mindset and language. But to each their own.

  5. Hi Wendy and Grant – I can strongly identify with assertiveness and its power, and thank you for focusing on this. I was just wondering if assertiveness as a positive factor can also stand alone, without linking it to disclosing or declaring? For the past few years I have really used assertiveness with much success in my quest to further improve my fluency. Assertiveness, for me, is all about “not holding back” and to fully express ourselves. The “not holding back” helps me to such an extent that I don’t even need to either declare or disclose.

    • Hello Peter, assertiveness or simply pure confidence is a true key in my mind and experiences. I have lectured and presented globally with an overt stutter because I am passionate about my career and the ability to positively influence the lives of others. I approach this with assertiveness and confidence. Many PWS I see who have gone through various speech programs do not use speech management techniques at all. They use confidence only made from some positive talking experiences. Suddenly they realise that being stutter free is a really hard job and not applicable to their lives. I now have zero overt anxiety about speaking and I often lecture in China. I declare by simply being a confident overt.

    • Hi Peter – “Not holding back” – feels so powerful just to think it. I believe this really is the essence of assertiveness. As you say, it transcends the need to disclose or declare and empowers that “free to be me” perspective.

  6. Hi Wendy and Grant, Foghorn Leghorn….my favourite cartoon character! Interesting paper. Thank you! Disclose or Declare. I prefer Advertise! The fear of stuttering, the fear of judgement is in my opinion the trigger for many stuttering episodes. Can I hide it? Will they notice? Will they think poorly of me! Drag the elephant out from under the table and advertise I am a person who stutters by disclosing, declaring or my favourite, voluntary stuttering. We do it not for our listener, but for us! Whatever the method used, we stop trying to hide….we take off the mask. Regards, Geoff

    • Great to hear from you Geoff and “advertise” is a nice way of approaching the topic also. Anxiety is a proven trigger for stuttering for sure. Both conscious and sub-consciously. I think confident overts like myself are walking billboards. Those with dominant covert behaviours though must find it very difficult at times.

    • My horizons are stretching! I love the idea of advertising, Geoff. I tend do do a similar thing with my autism. I really embrace any opportunity to drop the A-bomb into conversation and challenge peoples pre-conceived ideas about what it means to have Autism Spectrum Disorder. I can certainly identify with those earlier thoughts of ‘Can I hide it? Will they notice? Will they think poorly of me?’. Now I think I am probably be riding that elephant of which you speak, and boy it feels good to be a mahout.

  7. Fun presentation of a very pertinent topic Wendy and Grant.

    I think disclosure is a part of the road to declaration.

    From the start of my personal process of solidifying my unnatural sounding smooth speech, I could safely assume there are times when people were and are not sure why they are hearing what they are hearing. They were generally tactful but still it is not a speech pattern they are accustomed to.
    During a portion of the process I was disclosing often. For me it was not so much to put the listener at ease but rather for myself. The more comfortable I was speaking the way I needed to reach my speech goal the easier it was for me to do it. Disclosing to listeners, whether before a public speech or in just every day situations simply put it out there. And I felt more comfortable prolongating, using big easy onsets, etc as needed. As time has gone by I disclosed less and less reaching a point that I go into the world comfortable with the person I am, including how I speak. My declaration.
    Yes, Declaration is certainly empowering and a proclamation of pride.

    • Nice to hear from you Ron. I agree that for some the journey to shameless declaration would involve evolving confidently from journey of disclosure. I am always amazed at how different our life journeys are while amongst us PWS. I lecture in professional communication and present. My declaration is more focused on simply being a shameless overt PWS. I can understand how some people disclose for both their own needs and/or the needs of the audience though.

    • Hi Ron – It is interesting to reflect on who benefits and how. For me I think the important thing is to have clear intention before any action – knowing that those intentions can often change with my moods. Sometimes I declare, sometimes I advertise (Thanks Geoff) and sometimes I stay silent – but I make the choice. Sometimes it is for my benefit, sometimes because I believe it will be of benefit for others and sometimes it is just to be a little bit cheeky.

  8. Hi Wendy and Grant,
    Thank you for sharing! I really enjoyed your unique perspective on stuttering, and how you related it to beloved classic cartoon characters. One of my questions is do you think that putting more PWS in mainstream media would better help society accept PWS? And do you feel like cartoon characters would be more or less influential in promoting acceptance of speech differences?

    • Hello Courtney! Interesting question and worthy of a book! I think that putting more PWS into media, but not necessarily having a focus on their stuttering would be of great advantage for raising awareness and also helping to empower PWS. Not necessarily via just cartoons though. I think generally the world does accept PWS. At times we need to change our our lens of how we think the world treats us. I like the portrayal of Bill Denbrough in 2017’s IT Pt.1. In the film he was the hero who just happened to also stutter. The characters would need to be lead though. I could argue that Bumblebee in the modern Transformer movies has a impediment. Another example would be Benicio del Toro’s “DJ” in Star Wars: The Last Jedi who had an obvious stutter of some form. But just happened to be part of the character portrayal, was not a focal point of negativeness and made the character more believable.

    • Hi Courtney – I would agree that media representation is a powerful tool for raising awareness and like Grant would also prefer to see the stuttering a just one characteristic of a genuine character portrayal. It is a great question – what do they say? – You can’t be it if you can’t see it? – Not sure what the quote is, but I think greater representation in the media would not only raise awareness about stuttering, it could also assist in empowering PWS to step forward with more confidence. I believe we have moved beyond the influence of cartoon characters now and it is time to break down some barriers and see more PWS in mainstream media.

  9. Hello Wendy and Grant! Great article! I found it particularly compelling that declaring stuttering does not just consist of informing a listener about stuttering but also informs the listener that you are “proud…, reject any negative associations” with stuttering, and are not ashamed. I am not a PWS but I am currently a graduate student in a Speech-Language Pathology program and this article has given me a more complete understanding of what self-declaration of stuttering can be. Thank you!

    • Great to hear from you Jane and I am so happy that you read and appreciated out views. Some people have trouble understanding the difference between disclosure and declaration. If you were from the USA I would ask one question. Disclosure or Declaration of Independence. Which one sounds more forthright and empowering?

    • Hi Jane – As a teacher of teachers I love it when my students have Aha! moments like this. Very pleased we could trigger this insight for you. All the best in your studies and the future it is leading you to.

  10. Hello Wendy and Grant,
    I enjoyed reading your article! I like that there are also questions to guide choose whether someone chooses to share about their stuttering or not. I believe the ability to disclose or declare your stuttering is a healthy way to foster acceptance and to learn how to handle moments of stuttering in a more open and effective manner. I do agree that the declaration of stuttering is a great way to feel empowered and to build confidence.

    • Great response! Fostering acceptance is key to your journey forward. Whatever and wherever that journey may take you. But with every step forward do it will confidence and agility.

    • Hello Isalosagcol – It is so important to find your comfort in the process and make sense of what feels right to you. I would prefer a world where acceptance was not only a right, but a reality. Sadly, we do still need to encourage the development of acceptance in intentional ways and speak more of the change we wish to see. Thanks for your comments.

  11. Hello Wendy and Grant,

    Thank you for sharing your insight on the difference between disclosing and declaring a stutter for people who stutter. Some people who stutter choose to look at their fluency as a difference in speech rather than a disorder. I think it is very empowering that people who stutter can declare this in conversation with a new partner as a difference in speech rather than it being a disclosure. It can create acceptance and normalcy around stuttering. Do you think that disclosure vs declaration is something that more SLP’S should try to incorporate into treatment and counseling when working with people who stutter?

    • Hi Cellis – I have much respect for the work of SLPs and have worked with some fantastic practitioners over the years in Australian schools. One thing they all had in common was the desire to build confidence and self-worth in the children they were supporting. I see this shift in language as another tool they might use to support the empowerment of PWS. Awareness of the difference between disclosing and declaring could be part of the healing conversation.
      Perhaps we could also consider a different term for treatment. I like the way you look at stuttering as a difference in the fluency of speech rather than a disorder. The medical lens on language can be challenging to self-esteem at times. Instead of treating clients maybe we think of SLPs as enhancing speech, developing language skills and supporting communication – supporting us to improve our skills and empower our confidence – but not necessarily “fixing” us through treatment.

  12. Hello Cellis, yes I often describe stuttering as a character trait and point of difference. In some cases a unique selling point for the individual. I think SLPs can start discussing the notion of pride within one’s self journey in terms of therapy and management. For some PWS I think disclosure is an empowering stepping stone to enable declaring.

  13. Hi Wendy and Grant!

    Thank you for the great essay. I am an aspiring SLP, and your perspective on declaration vs disclosure was an enlightening one. In future practice I think all SLPs should know the difference between the two, and educate the client (and the community) on being proud of their communicative differences, as well as being mindful of their own rights to privacy and respect.

    I am interested in your choice of cartoon characters as an exemplar model for your points. I have a question: how do you think fictional characters who stutter should be approached in media? And have you seen any PWS in media recently that you think are great role models?

    • Hello Jose! You are not only an aspiring SLP, but you will be an inspiring SLP! Wow a fictional character who stutters? Interesting one. Well hmm… There are not a lot of overt prominent ones that I can think of. There is Joe Biden, but his stuttering seemed to be more of a selling point used during campaigning and it not really mentioned any more. I know there are sports people who stutter. But few people of note who stutter actually openly stutter. Many in fact are in the “I used to stutter” camp. I think the most fictional and inspiring PWS are ourselves and that we all need to get out there and stutter openly from time to time. To seamlessly integrate. To infiltrate and to inspire.

    • Hi Jose – I don’t know if we could still approach cartoon characters in a similar way to the way Warner Brothers did. I really have no idea what was intentional and what was accidental in the portrayal of their characters, but it worked in a respectful manner at the time. I do wonder if the fictional characters have perhaps broken the ice and paved the way for more realistic portrayals now. I remember my father telling me about growing up with fanciful stories of the adventures of Buck Rogers and how nobody really believed space travel was possible, and yet ….
      Maybe it is time for fiction to take a back seat and allow the real heroes a place on the stage. There are so many inspiring stories emerging through this conference and I would like to think that most of the world is ready to hear them. My hope is that people will continue to speak the change they wish to see in the world long after the conference closes.

  14. Dear Grant and Wendy

    Thanks for this thought-provoking paper, and for your responses to the questions posed by others.

    Words are indeed important, and carry weight. Disclosure, for me, does not imply weakness, inferiority or apology. I disclose the fact of my stutter in an assertive manner – this is key, since when we teach PWS about disclose we teach them to do so unapologetically, and with confidence that stuttering does not define them or limit them in any way. Such assertive disclosure puts me at ease, since, yes, after 50 years of shoring up my shame I am still working on eradicating it. Disclosure also helps the others to understand what’s going on. We need to see this as an act of actively improving communications: others do not know what stuttering is, and when we explain then we put them at ease. This is not because we need their approval; this is because when they understand what’s going on then they concentrate on what we are saying and not, in my case, on my primary or secondary stuttering behaviours.

    So, it’s really important, I think, that we don’t associate “disclosure” with “apology”. It’s not. It’s all about improving communication. Effective disclosure is done with pride and assertiveness, they are not different.

    And perhaps that is what you had meant anyway :-).

    Thanks so much for writing.
    Hanan

  15. Hi Hanan – Very eloquently put! I believe what is emerging through these discussions is the importance of purpose and confidence. Whether we refer to it as disclosure, declaration, advertising or voluntary stuttering, the common thread is about striving for that stance of unapologetic and unconditional positive self-regard. Ultimately it is the action that matters and despite our ‘language barriers’ I believe we do share the same meaning and the same intention.
    It is important to acknowledge that everyone is at a different place and for some the shame is very real, undeserved but real. If this is a person’s state of being then disclosure would be an empowering step toward challenging that emotion. I also imagine that a declaration at that point might be too confronting a jump to make. Perhaps what we are all presenting here is not a debate, but rather a smorgasbord of options for individuals to consider as they negotiate their own next steps.

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