How can we help people who stutter come to understand stuttering as something other than the negative opposite of fluency? We can begin by exploring with them the mechanisms of ableism that position those with disabilities as inferior. People do not exist in a vacuum. Discourses that give meaning to our world pre-exist our births. Our experiences and the meaning we make of them are contingent on these discourses. For example, the narratives circulating in our milieu surrounding masculinity, femininity, sexuality, race, and disability will drastically impact the experiences we have and how we make meaning of them. However, it would be overly simplistic to see stuttering as merely a problem of able-bodied oppression. People who stutter come to us with a very real embodied complaint that speech is difficult and effortful. They are not able to say what they want to say when they want to say it. Can we address both the social reality of ableism and also the individual reality of tense, effortful speech without appealing to fluency? Absolutely! Ableism and tense, effortful speech are both obstacles to enjoyable, spontaneous communication. When we focus on removing the obstacles to spontaneity we both work within a framework that does not privilege fluency as more desirable than stuttering and also honor people who stutter’s lived experiences of struggling to speak.
- Many people take for granted that the preferred outcome of therapy is fluency.
- Focusing on spontaneity leaves the outcome of therapy open-ended, recognizing that communication is dynamic, sounding different in different situations with different individuals.
Discrimination and Stigma
- We can encourage people who stutter to see their stuttering as an act of civil disobedience. Each and every time they stutter they are engaged in a political activity. They are refusing to let ableism silence their voices. They are stuttering even though society would rather them speak fluently or not at all.
- Often coping mechanisms that have been developed to help mitigate the experience of daily stigma and discrimination prevent spontaneous speech because they prohibit open stuttering and attempt to obfuscate it.
- These can include the addition of starter sounds, silent blocking, hesitant pauses, changing words, tensing of articulators, and avoiding speaking altogether.
- People who stutter can be encouraged to break up these coping patterns. Together, we can find easy, enjoyable, and pleasurable ways of stuttering.
Stuttering as hardship
- The experience of stuttering is often presented exclusively in terms of suffering and hardship.
- Fortunately these problem narratives can never capture the full richness of people who stutter’s lived experiences. They will have plenty of material from which to craft new narratives with new meanings.
- We can assist people who stutter to uncover moments and memories that contradict these problem narratives by exploring their past experiences for times that stuttering was not unpleasant or worrisome. Maybe there were even times they enjoyed stuttering.
- Ableist discourses run deep in our society and often people who stutter will need additional support crafting stutter-affirming narratives. We can invite them to roleplay stutter-affirming communication both in the therapy room and outside of it. How would someone who enjoys stuttering act? How would they speak? What would their stuttering sound like? What would it feel like in their mouths?
By welcoming people who stutter to address the above obstacles to spontaneity we can support them in making new meanings of their experiences. They can come to understand stuttering as a valuable part of their lived experience and not merely the negative opposite of fluency. By affirming the experience of stuttering we open up its meaning to a myriad of possibilities. Its unpredictability can be fun and exciting rather than a source of fear. The movement of lips and tongue can be pleasant rather than frustrating. The sounds of repeated syllables can be desirable rather than embarrassing. We must not restrain these new meanings with any preconceived notions of what success looks, sounds, or feels like. Instead we can help people come to take pleasure in their speech no matter its form, to help them find a stuttering aesthetic of their very own.
Christopher Constantino is a PhD candidate at the University of Memphis and a speech-language pathologist at Shelby County Schools. His research interests include the discursive and material production of disability, the therapeutic process, and the facilitation of agency. Chris enjoys riding his bicycle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org