Fighting Ableism One Stutter at a Time
I was conditioned early on in my life to believe something was wrong with the way I talked. It was inherently different than everyone else’s, abnormal and atypical. My speech was something that I needed to change, needed to fix. Everyone seemed concerned about it, even people who didn’t know me on a personal level. They would interrupt me and finish my sentences, assuming they could predict the words I hadn’t spoken yet. They would tell me:
“Think about what you want to say before you say it.”
“Did you forget your name?” [nervous laughter]
“Take your time. Take a deep breath. Relax.”
I stutter. I have stuttered since I was 2 years old. Sometimes the words effortlessly flow from my brain, through my lungs, throat, and out of my mouth to the listener’s ears, but this never lasts. Stuttering always shows up eventually. I may not always know when it will make an appearance, or how, but I know it is there somewhere. I am used to my stuttering and I wish everyone else would get used to it too. My reactions and my feelings about stuttering are relative to how you, the listener, react. I am only uncomfortable because you are uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable FOR you. I see you, the look in your eyes. Confusion? Pity? Intrigue? Annoyance? You seem uneasy, tense, anxious. I notice your body shift, trying to convince itself that it is relaxed, comfortable, present. I have been stuttering for roughly 34 years. Stuttering may be unfamiliar to you, but the reactions and responses I experience from listeners are well known to me. And some days I am tired. Too tired to expend an ounce of emotional energy trying to teach you what stuttering is and how to respond to someone who stutters. Too tired to be concerned about your level of comfort. Because, really, how difficult is it to just wait and listen?
Being uncomfortable and confused are normal human responses to seeing, hearing, and experiencing something new or unexpected. I know that my voice – staccato, shaky, stuck, silent – makes you uncomfortable. However, what if I told you that it is your problem to work on. I am not asking anyone (except for SLPs) to become experts in stuttering. I am asking for patience. I am asking you to expect “different.” I am asking that you learn to be ready for disabilities. I am asking you to understand that people with differences may not want to be like you. I am asking to be treated, talked to, and listened to the same way you would treat, listen, and talk to a non-stutterer. I am asking you to become comfortable listening to me. I am asking you to stop trying to speak for me, stealing my words in a way that not even stuttering can. You are not saving me. You are saving yourself from your own uncomfortable feelings.
I am asking more from my fellow Speech-Language Pathologists. It is time for radical acceptance of stuttering.
I am forever grateful to autistic people for their extensive work advocating and educating professionals and the public about ableism. Reading their stories and learning about their experiences over the past few years has given me the strength and confidence to become a more fierce, unapologetic advocate for people who stutter. As a stutterer, I have felt uncomfortable with the ableist language, practices, therapies, and overall tone in our field long before I ever heard the term “ableism” or “neurodivergence.” I had been on the other side of ableism, as a client in and out of speech therapy with several different SLPs for much of my life. As a child, I never felt accepted by an SLP. I felt criticized, judged, and uncomfortable. I felt like I was a disappointment, always doing something wrong (stuttering). I do not believe these SLP’s realized the harm they were causing. The problem is the inherent nature of our entire field and the way it perpetuates and promotes ableism. When they told me to repeat a sentence because I stuttered, or to use my techniques because they would help me become fluent, they were causing harm. When they complimented and praised my fluent speech, they were unknowingly teaching me to hide my stutter. The ableist message I was always receiving was, “You’re not talking correctly. Keep practicing so you can become more fluent. Stuttering is abnormal. Fluent speech is normal. Stuttering is wrong. Fluency is right. You should want to speak correctly and if you try hard enough, you will be able to.”
I remember when I decided to pursue a career in Speech-Language Pathology. Most people assume I chose this career because of my stutter, which is true, but not for the reason people probably think. I had been in college for a few years already, passionate about a range of majors from Philosophy and Law to Forensic Science and Art History. My fear of stuttering held me back from committing to any of these. Finally, I decided my only option was to become a Speech-Language Pathologist. I naively thought I was entering into an accepting field, where I would never be judged based on my stutter. I thought I would find my “people;” The ones who would support me, encourage me, and most importantly, accept me and my speech. This is the reason I decided to become an SLP. I would finally be accepted. However, what I experienced was the complete opposite.
An SLP clinical supervisor in graduate school encouraged me to think about a different career. “How can you teach children how to speak correctly if you cannot?” The words from a professor (and SLP) written on a feedback card from a presentation I had just given that I was proud of: “Next time, try to be more fluent.”
When we presented in pairs and groups, I almost always received a lower grade than the student(s) I was grouped with. One time I asked my professor why there was such a disparity, “C” for me, “A” for her. “The content was excellent. You two had everything in there. Your part of the verbal presentation, um, just wasn’t, wasn’t as good as hers.” I knew what he wanted to say though. Nothing that happened in graduate school came as a surprise to me. But I was disappointed. When entering this field, I had been cautiously optimistic, hoping SLPs would prove to be more accepting and understanding than the general public. I realize now the problem is more complex than individual SLPs who need to learn more about stuttering. The basis of our profession is “abnormal vs. normal, atypical vs. typical, wrong vs. right.” And how do you think stuttering is labeled? Abnormal, atypical, wrong.
The negative impact of stuttering on someone’s life can be greatly reduced when they learn how to accept their stuttering. This acceptance is more easily achieved when listeners are supportive and understanding. Through acceptance, a stutterer may be able to speak more freely, openly, and authentically, without trying to hide who they are. So, do your part as a communication partner, whether you know someone who stutters or not. Become familiar with stuttering. Expect disabilities and differences of all kinds. If you do not know how to best support someone, ask them. And please, wait and listen.
For SLP’s, the work goes further. Advocate for total, unapologetic acceptance of stuttering. Call out colleagues who perpetuate ableism in our field. Listen to people who stutter, to those who have not been “cured.” Question SLP’s who focus on fluency. Ask for research that examines the emotional impact fluency-focused therapies have on people who stutter. Accepting stuttering does not mean we are giving up or do not have a job to do. We are giving the power to the people who stutter, allowing them to live as they are, without judgment. Full acceptance of stuttering is not radical. People who stutter need SLPs to help educate the public, hold colleagues accountable, and advocate for them in school and at home. People who stutter need support, encouragement, compassion, and empathy from SLPs. Advocating for oneself is exhausting. SLPs can help.
I am happy to say that I did finally find my “people;” Other people who stutter. They are the only ones who will ever understand me on this particular level, and I am ok with that. I cherish the relationships I have with my stuttering friends. There is a tangible connection and understanding we have with each other that is always there, lying deep below the surface, sacred and untouchable. Vulnerability. Honesty. Authenticity. Power. Acceptance.
About the author:
Allison Ladavat, MA, CCC-SLP (she/her) is an SLP who stutters. She graduated with a Master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. Allison worked as an Early Intervention SLP with the 0-3 population for 8 years, where she provided coaching, support, and counseling to families. In 2020 she founded Pittsburgh Stuttering Therapy LLC, where she provides comprehensive, holistic, compassionate stuttering therapy to individuals of all ages who stutter. Allison has complex PTSD, attributed in part to academic trauma related to her experiences as a stutterer. She lived as a covert stutterer for much of her adolescence and early adulthood, in a near-constant fight or flight mode, always afraid to stutter. At 19, she decided to try speech therapy one last time out of desperation because of failing grades in college. This is when she met Dr. Scott Yaruss, the first SLP who made her feel understood, supported, and accepted. She credits him for helping her begin the process of positive change, as well as supporting and mentoring her in this field. Allison is not a “perfect stutterer.” She continues to have severe disfluencies at times and has deeply engrained avoidance tendencies. But, she is no longer a covert stutterer and stuttering does not dictate her life anymore. Allison believes that speech therapy can and should be a positive experience for everyone. She advocates for stuttering acceptance and understanding, especially within the SLP community.
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