Stuttering Privilege

My friend Chris made an interesting observation awhile back. He suggested that stuttering is a unique disability because we know what it feels like not to stutter– that is, people who stutter know exactly what it’s like to be fluent. This isn’t always true of other disabilities. For example, Deaf people don’t typically have periods where they can hear clearly, and people with dyslexia don’t move in and out of being able to read well.  I’m sure there are other exceptions, but stuttering does seem odd because of its variability. Some days we are more fluent than others. Our periods of fluency can last for weeks or even longer. Likewise our stuttering can be more or less pronounced over periods of time.

I have experienced this throughout my life for sure. Even when I was covert, I had times where it was much harder to hide or avoid my stutter. I know stress contributes to this, but sometimes it seems completely random. I often feel like I am moving up and down a scale. I can’t predict on any given day where I will be on the scale either; it’s often a surprise.

For the past few weeks, I have been much farther on the dysfluent end of the scale than I typically am. I am blocking much more often and those blocks last longer. My secondaries are flaring up as well.  At times I make a weird squawking sound when I can get a little air to pass through my vocal folds–at least that’s how I imagine it. I can only describe it as something between a sea lion and a vulture. It’s not a pleasant sound– and I do find a lot stuttering to be pleasant.

Because of this long stay on the more dysfluent end of the scale, I have felt some of the progress I have made in accepting and loving my stutter becoming challenged. I have dug up old speech tools to get through the trickiest situations. I have even considered therapy again, (granted the therapy I’ve looked into is through AIS and is more in-line with Avoidance Reduction Therapy and Stuttering Modification). I’m going to borrow some language from the LGBTQ community when I say, it is easier to be ‘out and proud’ when I’m not stuttering as much.

So why do I value the periods of relative fluency over these periods of hard and frequent blocks? Going back to what my friend said, might relative fluency at times make periods of strong stuttering harder to cope with? I think this is true. I can’t help but pine for the days when things will easier for sure. but I think there are other contributors.

On the phone a few days ago with a Canadian friend who stutters, I blocked and squawked and struggled to hold up my end of the conversation, and in the end felt some of the old shame creeping back. I know she wasn’t judging me, but I felt bad for feeling bad. These same feelings come up when I think of my next NSA chapter meeting. I want to tell my friends that I’m having a hard time, but I feel like I shouldn’t be. If I really have accepted and learned to love my stutter, shouldn’t that always be the case– even when the going gets tough? I also have to admit that I’m worried this dysfluent period will still be going on when I present at the NSA conference. Not only am I worried about taking too much time and making unpleasant sounds, but of having to use speech tools in front of my peers who have rejected traditional techniques. I know deep down that all these thoughts and fears are unreasonable– the place I should feel safest is with my friends who also stutter– but I think these feelings might be coming from a valid place..

I don’t want to diminish the pressure fluent society puts on us, or the pressure we put on ourselves individually, but I think the stuttering community is not completely innocent of assigning a privilege to being more fluent, lacking a lot of secondaries or having a more ‘pleasant’ sounding stutter.  Maybe this is my own paranoid hang up but I do have some basis for thinking this.

I’ve done a fair share of participating in video chats with other stutters. Usually these are pretty equitable, but there are times when the more fluent people dominate or when someone gets interrupted or talked over while they are working through a block. It doesn’t happen often, but it does occasionally–it’s happened to me. Probably the worst thing I’ve heard about was when someone with a strong stutter was asked to shorten a question during an NSA presentation, for the sake of time.

I love podcasts by and for people who stutter, and I think these could be a great place to celebrate the variability that we stutterers share. I really love the most recent episode of StutterTalk that features some of the NYC chapter folks. I appreciate the decision to leave in (all or at least some of) the blocks and longer stutters. We also need to be willing to let the squawks, blocks and odd secondaries out, especially around each other. There is beauty in them.  When we are together we need to encourage the folks with the strong stutters to have the floor for as long as they need. Not only will their voices help define stuttering to the rest of the world, but I also believe having this exposure will help us when and if we come to a difficult place in our own journeys.


2 thoughts on “Stuttering Privilege

  1. Hello Elizabeth,
    As always, I enjoyed your thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary. As for me, I find that acceptance of stuttering does not represent a binary choice – not a switch that we flip, not something that we either have or don’t have – but an ongoing relationship we negotiate with our minds and bodies day-by-day and moment-by-moment. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed other chronic conditions besides stuttering. While I fully accept the fact that I have, for example, herniated discs and more or less constant back pain, my acceptance of the pain itself may vary dramatically from moment to moment based on the intensity of my pain (and level of stress and activity, etc.). Same with my stuttering. I am not so sure that stuttering has cornered the market on variability in this regard. I have friends with other chronic conditions who experience what it’s like not to experience those conditions. I have friends with depression who know what it’s like not to feel depressed; friends wth ADHD who know what it’s like to pay attention; friends with fibromyalgia who know what’s like to move painlessly; friends with arthritis and MS who know what it’s like to move with relative ease; friends with bipolar who know what it’s like to feel calm and centered, and so on. I think it’s perfectly human, and perfectly normal, to have complicated relationships with our minds and bodies! All the best,


    • Rob,
      Thanks for the comment. You’re right, I should have made it more clear that I understand stuttering isn’t the only disability with variability. I steered away from that because of the tricky nuance between disability and illness– I just didn’t want to go there. Depression and ADHD are excellent examples though, thank you. I also suspect that some of those individuals have many of the same experiences I’ve described.

      The point I was working toward wasn’t necessarily just about struggling to accept ourselves wherever we are, but about what we as a stuttering community can do to help ease that struggle. I hope that came through.

      Feel free to DM me to continue this conversation. I always enjoy conversing with you😊


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