The Case For Stuttering


Is Greater Acceptance For Communication Differences Becoming the "Norm?"

I think so... and it's about freakin' time.

In the past, I've talked about people on the autistic spectrum, people with strong accents, and others I've worked with who have faced obstacles in their professional roles and pursuits because of their communication. Now, a book published this past January promotes the de-stigmatizing of stuttering. Jonty Claypole, a stutterer himself, references the neurodiversity movement with regard to people on the autism spectrum to highlight the point that society is slow to extend the idea to people with neurodiversity of other speech and language issues, such as stuttering.

While only 1% of the population stutters, he asserts that campaigns to tackle social prejudice have rarely reached critical mass. Making matters worse, growing up, there certainly weren't encouraging role models--Porky Pig and Michael Palin's character from "A Fish Called Wanda" to name a few. He questions why in "The King's Speech" it was so important that the king be fluent.

He makes a larger case for all speech and language differences, and the viewpoint that there has been an unrealistic and confining "ideal" way of speaking and communicating put forth and promoted, epitomized by slick productions and polished TED Talks.

Claypole acknowledges the devastating effects disfluency can have and doesn't deny the negative experiences; however, he asserts that there is a general lack of understanding and acceptance for stuttering and other speech differences that is perpetuated by media. "Caring" rather than "curing" is the more appropriate response, in his opinion.

It was refreshing to read Claypole's take on speech and communication. The ideas and issues he talks about are ones I have been intimately immersed in, having been a speech/language pathologist and now corporate speech and voice trainer for over 25 years. It is understood that there is a continuum regarding speech and language skills and traits within which we consider "normal." Using "norms" can be a tricky business, however. At worst, it can be used to make some feel "lesser than" or that the way they do something is not the "right" way. One could also argue that these standards contribute to quashing creativity and limiting our appreciation for all types of expression and connection, as well as for learning and growth.

As with many other obstacles in speech and language that people endure, the therapeutic approach for stutterers is two-fold. The first part involves teaching techniques to become more fluent so that an individual communicates more effectively and pragmatically with the public at large, increasing functionality, at the same time limiting social discomfort. These therapies involve physiological and psychological components. Addressed also are important issues surrounding the concept of control and the amount one has over one's own self-expression. Some stutterers become brilliant adaptors in finding synonyms for words that they fear they will stutter on. They also learn to avoid certain communicative contexts. With a greater sense of control comes more freedom in the individual's ability to communicate.

The second part of the therapy involves developing coping strategies, as well as making appropriate shifts in perspective with regard to one's stuttering behavior and the reactions to them by the world at large. Wherever society is at in its fundamental understanding and acceptance of a behavior or style must be considered with a wise and patient mindset, lest that overarching opinion feed into one's own worst insecurities. Also, it's important to continually work to reinforce the belief that stuttering constitutes just one part of a person's unique identity.

Referring to the continuum on which language and speaking abilities and traits ride... most individuals recognize within themselves some of the traits that are exhibited when they encounter a person on the autism spectrum or who stutters, or who has Tourette's or even someone who has had a stroke. We all make social faux pas, stammer, tick, and experience word-finding difficulty at times. Claypole and others are important voices helping to shift the way we understand, accept and appreciate communication differences, as well as re-think the continuum, and why and how where someone falls on it matters.

In my next blog, I'll talk about stuttering in more depth and how the obstacles encountered and experiences endured by stutterers provide valuable insight and lessons that every communicator can benefit from.