Most personal essays by famous stutterers follow a familiar structure: work hard, stop stuttering, succeed. But this message can be harmful to the people (and children) it’s trying to help.
Captain “Sully” Sullenberger recently published a New York Times op-ed in response to Lara Trump’s comments mocking Joe Biden for stuttering. As someone who “once stuttered,” Sully was rightly outraged that Biden’s stuttering would be ridiculed. As a group of adults who still stutter, presently and noticeably, we are happy to see stuttering discussed and defended in the public eye. We also wish to call attention to some problems we see with Sully’s treatment of stuttering.
Roughly one percent of adults stutter — 2.5 million adults in the U.S. alone. Stuttering is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary blockage of speech or repetition of sounds. We are part of this group. We are writers, engineers, nurses, lawyers, doctors, therapists, teachers, service workers, and unemployed people who stutter. We often joke about the fact that “famous people” who stutter frequently talk about it as a childhood relic that they overcame and learned from — often as they exhibit signs of stuttering in the present!
In the op-ed, Sully writes about the “anguish” and bullying that accompanied his stuttering in childhood. We, and the vast majority of people who stutter, share those painful memories. Sully writes of how he learned to “manage and overcome my stuttering, through much hard work and intense focus,” including learning to “slow down” and “enunciate each word with precision.” (It’s a story of hard work and overcoming that Joe Biden tells, too, most recently during a CNN town hall.) We also share the memories of “working” to overcome our stutters. As clearly as we remember the bullies, we remember the parents and teachers who interrupted us to advise us to slow down, or the speech therapists who counted our stutters during an evaluation, then taught us breathing exercises to reprogram our vocal mechanisms. It did not help us overcome our stuttering, nor the effects of bullying. In fact, it reinforced our deepest fears that our best chance at being respected, productive members of society — or valued friends or partners, or, simply, comfortable with ourselves— required that we “overcome” stuttering. It equated stuttering with failure.
We believe that Sully found peace with his speech through the work he describes. But we want to affirm, especially for the young people out there, that it is okay to stutter. We believe that not only is it okay to stutter, but people who stutter should be empowered to speak however is most comfortable for them — even if that speaking style contains pauses, repetitions, and blocks. Informed by disability studies and our own experiences, we believe that encouraging people who stutter to embrace their stutter can be far more powerful than any attempt to smooth or hide our speech. It deepens our understanding of other human beings, encourages empathy, and opens up new channels for communication of ideas. When freed from its stigma, stuttering can be just another way of speaking — one that’s worthwhile and meaningful in its own right.
We don’t mean to say that stuttering is easy. Transforming our internalized fear and shame into acceptance and pride, and responding to episodes of discrimination with self-advocacy, requires deep work and ongoing connection with a supportive community. If you or a loved one is struggling with stuttering, there is help available in the form of support groups, advocacy organizations, and skilled therapists. You do not need to stop stuttering to move forward in life, and you do not need to walk this road alone.
At the end of the essay, Sully writes, “(y)ou become a true leader, not because of how you speak, but because of what you have to say.” We propose that people who stutter have the opportunity to become true leaders exactly because of how they speak — with courage and authenticity, and in defiance of ableist demands that we normalize our speech or stay silent. To prevent discrimination and bullying, we need to destigmatize the look, act, and sound of stuttering. We need to do more than shame those who mock stuttering, while remaining silent when people who claim to be on the side of stutterers gently equate fluency with “hard work” and success, and therefore stuttering with weakness and failure. We need to make room for stuttering in public, and to face bullies with our stuttered voices, rather than hiding them away. To all the people who stutter, we echo Sully in affirming that “you are fine, just as you are.”
- Capt. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger: Like Joe Biden, I Once Stuttered, Too. I Dare You to Mock Me.: The New York Times
- What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say: The Atlantic
- Biden shares vulnerable story on how he overcome stuttering: CNN
- NYC Stutters
- NYC Stutters on YouTube