Monthly Archives: November 2014

It’s time to take back our speech: Did I stutter?

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Cathy and Sam invited me to discuss the Did I Stutter Project, a recently launched disability activist project for stutterers by stutterers, created by myself, Zach Richter, and Erin Schick this summer. Put most simply, we are a group of stutterers who want to be heard on our own terms, with two main goals: 1) resisting speech assimilation and 2) advocating for dysfluency pride. We are not a self-help group per se. Rather, we consider ourselves as part of the disability rights movement.

Gaining their momentum in the 70s, disability rights activists and theorists have insisted that what we understand as “disability” is not primarily a medical but a political issue of inclusion and exclusion. Human traits are tremendously varied – eye and hair color, bone structure, height, physical and mental capabilities. So why, disability politics asks, are only particular forms of variation marked as “abnormal”?

The short answer to this question is that the very process of categorizing bodies and human traits in terms of normal/abnormal or abled/disabled is deeply informed by cultural, economic, social, and political values. For example, despite progressive legislation we still erect inaccessible buildings and transportation systems that “disable” wheelchair users and deaf or blind people. Architecture that excludes certain types of people is a reflection of what and who we value as a society. Disability activists and theorists thus argue that (to varying degrees depending on who you ask) disability is not an individual and biological condition, but is a complex interaction between bodies, cultural values, and social/economic structures. “Abnormal/normal” and “disabled/abled” are, therefore, first and foremost political categories used to construct our world in oppressive ways. Because of this, disability rights movements refuse to believe that disability is fundamentally a medical issue, and instead see it as a matter of civil rights and justice. We demand to be included in society as equal participants just as we are.

Yet up until late, there has been very little attention to stuttering and communication disabilities within disability studies and activism. Did I Stutter wants to change this. We are of course not the only people interested in thinking about stuttering from the perspective of disability studies: stuttering pride is being blogged; vloged; poetry slammed; and discussed. Did I Stutter is part of a movement that is already happening.

As part of the disability activism movement, we understand stuttering to be just one variation of human speech patterns. The “abnormality” of stuttering is not a thing that can be diagnosed and treated clinically. As we argue on our site, “stuttering is only a problem – in fact is only abnormal – because our culture places so much value on efficiency and self-mastery. Stuttering breaks communication only because ableist notions have already decided how fast and smooth a person must speak to be heard and taken seriously.”

With this history and outline in mind, I return to the two main goals of Did I Stutter: 1) resisting speech assimilation and 2) advocating for dysfluency pride.

The first is admittedly more controversial. Resisting speech assimilation means that we want to speak on our own terms. We should not need to speak more fluently in order to be heard and taken seriously. One of the first and most important steps in disability justice has always been to reclaim authority over our bodies, and this is no different for stuttering. Currently the language or “discourse” of speech-language pathology continues to dominate discussions of stuttering, but we believe that the very logic of pathologization needs to go. If we really want to “treat” stuttering, instead of focusing on fluency perhaps we need to fix the society that discriminates against us and understands our speech as a problem. Did I Stutter wants to help create a world where speech doesn’t have to be made “normal” to be taken seriously, and where the very idea of normal is undone.

[Note: we recognize the issue of SLP is complex, especially insofar as SLP enables some people to access education and other socio-economic opportunities that they would otherwise be denied. We nevertheless believe it is not only necessary but crucial to critique SLP while recognizing that it is useful for some people in some instances. We have blogged about SLP here and here, and there is a good discussion of SLP on our forum.]

Secondly, we believe that dysfluent voices are important forms of communication and should be encouraged to flourish. We want people to stutter more. As I say here, “I stutter more because I do not want to live in (nor help create) a world that normalizes bodies and discriminates against those who do not fit in. . . . Stuttering more and stuttering proudly turns the tables on all those people who (wrongly) assume that, given a choice, I would rather talk just like them.” Reclaiming our dysfluent voices requires that we think of them in new and positive ways. Zach has written an exceptional blog post describing how his stutter is an essential part of his voice.

We are well aware that changing society rather than our bodies is a far more difficult and drawn-out task. Getting non-stutterers to understand and become responsible for their role in disabling our voices is going to take a long time. So is transforming conversational space to allow for our voices to be heard. And for those of us who stutter, undoing lifetimes of internalized ableism that has led to self-loathing and hate is perhaps just as difficult. Yet this is important work that we are excited to be a part of. These are our voices and it is time we take back our speech.

Joshua St. Pierre is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Alberta and has published on stuttering and communication both academically and non-academically. Using his experience of stuttering, his work explores the normalization and exclusion of particular communicative bodies, practices, and subjects within political economies.