Coming back from the National Stuttering Association (NSA) Annual Conference is always an emotional time for me. Being around others who talk like you is something most people take for granted, but for someone who stutters, the experience is indescribable. Suddenly you’re no longer different from everyone else. You realize there’s nothing wrong with you or the way you speak; you don’t have to change or hide who you are. You can speak freely, you aren’t interrupted, and you feel the unconditional regard that everyone has for each other. It’s like having our own little slice of Stuttering Utopia five days out of the year. But then the conference ends: suddenly we have to leave utopia and go back to that “real world” we inhabit during those other 360 days.
Seven years ago, when I was coming home from a particularly transformative conference, I realized that Stuttering Utopia and the “real world” didn’t have to be two different things. The conference was over, but what it represented to me—the need for community, dignity, and the ability to engage in the world on my own terms—those things could be integrated in my everyday life. I could build my own utopia, but I would have to make some difficult changes and be willing to fight for them. I left my boyfriend and began my part-time career as a stand-up comedian. I made new friends who were more accepting of my communication style. I wasn’t holding back from sharing who I was for fear that my stuttering would be a burden to the listener; I allowed myself to speak more openly, both in my dysfluent speech as well as my needs and desires. Maybe Stuttering Utopia is an unattainable ideal, but trying to get there over the last seven years has benefited me immeasurably.
This year’s conference a larger issue emerged for me. Making a Stuttering Utopia in my own life was not enough. Why do the feelings and outcomes of the conference need to be restricted to just conference participants. Why can’t we make our world a little more like the conference. What does that mean? It means thinking about all the people who were not at the NSA conference because they either didn’t know about it or couldn’t afford to go. It means while many are interested in finding a cure for stuttering, I’m more interested in finding a cure for the prejudice and isolation that people who stutter experience. It means promoting realistic images of stuttering to counter all the negative ones in the media. It means funding research that will measure the attitudes of individuals and institutions so we can work more effectively to solve issues of discrimination. It means rather than identifying solely as stutterers, we should infuse every aspect of our identity so that issues of gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, and their intersection with stuttering can be analyzed and addressed. It means training societal institutions like law enforcement, educators, and employers on how to interact with people who stutter and helping the stuttering community understand their rights. It means that speech and language pathologists, social workers, psychotherapists, and other professionals should not only “treat” people who stutter but also address the issues that impact quality of life in our community. I challenge them to advocate for the rights of people who stutter and use their influence to not rehabilitate our stuttering but to rehabilitate our society. Above all, a broader social context means realizing that we’re all united in the struggle to grant everyone fair access to safety, education, work and self-empowerment.
Being part of the Disability community I have learned one important element of social change: the issues that impact people with disabilities impact everyone. When you address those issues, there is a ripple effect that benefits everybody. The ramp that’s added to a building for wheelchair access makes that building better for everyone. By turning our Stuttering Utopia outward to include the world around us, we can change everyone’s lives for the better. I know it changed mine.