Just yesterday I spent over an hour talking with a Canadian friend who also stutters. Even though the call eventually dropped, it was so refreshing to talk to someone who understands blocks and allows time to finish thoughts. Unless you live in a large city, it’s really hard to make connections with other people who stutter. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a conference, support group meetings and meet people through social media, but not everyone has that kind of privilege. Many live in communities too small to form support groups, or don’t know that such a thing exists. People who stutter often become isolated and feel like they are an island among fluent speakers.
Initially, I was going to organize this post into external and internal factors that can cause this isolation, but I realized that there is so much interplay between these, that it’s almost impossible to decompose them in that way.
Perhaps the biggest factor that causes people who stutter to become isolated is the fact that stuttered speech is so stigmatized. Very early, we are taught that the way we talk is atypical and in need of correction. The therapy we receive in school is often in small private rooms away from the general population. This only compounds the idea that our speech is something to be ashamed of. Many of us learn that the only way to fit in is to do everything we can to hide our stutters. Unfortunately, that means that we are hiding from each other as well. Until a year ago, I was actually afraid to talk to anyone I suspected stuttered, because they might ‘out me’. How can we build community if we don’t even know who we are, or if we’re afraid to show it?!
Another factor that makes us feel alone is that we often feel fluent people don’t understand us. But have we really tried to educated them? Honestly, have you ever asked a fluent loved one or friend to try voluntary stuttering? I’ve even heard that while using delayed auditory feedback helps some of us not stutter, it can cause a fluent person to speak with a stutter. Perhaps things like this could help people understand us better so we didn’t feel so alone.
One thing that has always made me feel isolated was the lack of (or terrible) representation in media. I can count on one hand shows I watched as a kid that had any kind of character who stuttered, let alone realistically. I have no idea how this can be influenced, but it might help to encourage actors who stutter, to do so openly.
The last factor I will mention (this is not a comprehensive list) is one we sadly do to ourselves. It’s natural to want to associate with others who share your belief systems and philosophies. Unfortunately, this can cause factionalization in a group. Camps such as fluency seekers and those who have fully accepted their stutters can become polarized and critical of each other when, in reality, there’s a lot of grey area between. I know I’m very guilty of this. We probably have much more in common with each other than we acknowledge and could spend more time in that middle ground.
So what can we do to build a stronger community? One place to begin might be to stop providing therapy for young children outside of the classroom. As a teacher of students with other disabilities, we are mandated to provide services in the least restrictive environment. Why can’t students who stutter work with a therapist (at least partially) in the environment where they spend most of their time?
We also need more support groups. Most of the existing groups are in large metropolitan areas, but small cities are perfect places because they can be accessed by more rural areas as well. Once they are established, we can use social media, local papers, and online resources to spread the word. Remember that many people don’t even know these groups exist; they just need to be reached out to.
There are countless other ways as well. Find a way to demand media representation (then tell me what you did). Educate fluent friends and family. Reach out through social media and participate in online conversations. Don’t let the excitement created at conferences die out. Lastly, stutter openly and boldly whenever and wherever you feel you can. How can we find each other if we’re hiding?
While thinking about this post, I decided to create a forum to positively discuss stuttering. I’ve seen a few other forums, but they are often places to share techniques and therapies. Join if you’re interested: