Being a stammerer, I believe, has the ability to provide an individual with certain positive attributes. One of the attributes I have found is a great respect for language. The experience of not saying what you want to makes you acutely appreciate the power of the right words. Whether it is in ordering in a restaurant or performing an oral presentation, you come to realise no word is a perfect synonym for another. Each word comes with its own unique associations and connotations.
Just recently, I have come to closely consider the words I and others use to describe stammering. The words may often sound positive – overcome, manage – but there are often subtle negative connotations present.
Now, I am no linguist, but I decided to read a bit more into language and social stigma. In 1980, Dale Spender wrote a seminal text in feminism called “Man Made Language”. In the book, she lays out the power of language to influence society and individuals.
”[Language] is our means of ordering, classifying and manipulating the world. It is through language we become members of the human community”.
She then goes on to explain how the dominant sex “men” have dominated language – God is always a he, sex is penetrative – re-enforcing the lowly position of women. English is a man’s language that continues the oppression of women. This line of thought has since been continued from feminism into disability: an able majority has created a language that oppresses the disabled.
For a few minutes, I want to briefly write on how, maybe, a language pre-dominantly made by fluent people shapes our consciousness and our beliefs about stammering. How a fluent made language oppresses people who stammer. I would like to highlight a few more obvious words we could really do without in the stammering vocabulary. Words that continue to encourage society and stammerers to view stammering as a stigmatising defect rather than simply another way of communicating.
I shudder with rage every time I read this one. It is the go to word for fluent newspaper writers everywhere: they aim to hold people who stammer up as inspiration porn to sell newspapers: not tackle social stigma. Look below the surface: overcome re-enforces stammering as a weakness. It implies stammering is something that can be beaten if only enough effort is applied.
These two words are ubiquitous in the description of stammering therapies and successful outcomes for stammering therapies. They encourage stammering to be thought of as individual defect that should be minimised through effort rather than a disability which should be respected.
Grow out of
Commonly used when describing children who stop stammering. To me, it suggests those children who have not stopped stammering have failed to grow up. If only children who stammer were stronger, more confident they would have stopped this awful behaviour by now…
I think I may have just touched the surface with these few obvious examples. Society stigmatises stammering by a thousand cuts, not in an obvious fashion. I believe it’s time we started to use our walking thesaurus word-switching brains, refined by struggling with speech, to benefit stammering: to think about those subtly oppressive phrases we might use and replace them with empowering ones.