Breaking the Stigma of Stuttering

Stutterers are not some unified whole. Like everyone, we can be our own worst critics and our worst enemies. The truth is that we are as varied as the rest of humanity. And it is this scale that we should be judged on.
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I spent years of my childhood believing in a singular fallacy: fluency = success. In my early adulthood the equation expanded to include stuttering = failure (along with unemployment, loneliness and other equally cheery thoughts).

As a kid growing up with a stutter in the early '80s there weren't many people around to debunk those beliefs. Porky Pig was hardly a leader of men and the odd stutterers that I came across in films were either violent criminals, nervous psychopaths or suicidal inpatients. The future didn't look too rosy.

So I hid my stutter, as best I could. I tried everything to get rid of it. I battled against all the ways I believed it trapped me. And finally I set off to face it, to immerse myself in it. To write a book about it.

I interviewed hundreds of stutterers who taught me that what we did, and what we said, was far more important than the extra seconds it took us to get those words out. The myths that I had long built up around my speech were debunked one by one. After a year of research, I decided that it was time to start changing the conversation.

As I prepared to publish my book, I noticed that I wasn't alone, a ground swell seemed to be rising up alongside me. Men like Jack Welch and Joe Biden and Byron Pitts were standing up and speaking about their stutters. About the struggle and the survival, about the way their speech shaped their success. Hollywood, once the perpetuator of tired stuttering misconceptions, was changing too. Films like The King's Speech and Rocket Science were giving viewers thoughtful, nuanced insight into lives lived through a different sort of voice.

Public opinion was evolving, growing more understanding, more empathetic.

And yet, despite all the growing social and professional acceptance, I saw that stutterers still remained misunderstood. Again and again in my research I met men and women who felt their stutters created a glass ceiling on their professional lives and I heard stories of overqualified candidates failing through endless job interviews. Recently, a study from England reported that employers may be reluctant to hire people who stutter because they are concerned about negative reactions from customers or other workers.

The truth is, the perception of stuttering may be shifting but certain tired and false assumptions are lingering on.

So, it is time to debunk five big myths that still cling to the condition:

Myth 1: Stutterers are not good communicators
Our words may take a little longer than most, but that does not negate their impact or their worth. Rather, our stutters can prove to be an unexpected advantage. In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant introduces us to Dave Walton, a phenomenally successful trial lawyer. In his chapter on the power of powerless communication, Adam explains that, "When Dave stammered and tripped over a couple of arguments, something strange happened. The jurors liked him." When I was writing Out With It, I discovered this same phenomenon -- again and again I saw how people were drawn to stutterers, how likeable they seemed to be. At first I balked at the discovery, worrying that the attraction was perhaps born of pity. However, the more people I spoke to, the more I realized the opposite was true -- people were drawn to the stutterer's courage and lack of artifice. In a world full of noise and nonsense, the effort that stutterers put into speaking made them somehow trustworthy and genuine. That is not to say that it is easy, or without its pitfalls (the phone is far from my preferred means of communication), but the inherent vulnerability of stuttering creates conversations that quickly move beyond the superficial and tap into something more profound.

Myth 2: Stuttering is born of laziness
Over my life, strangers have most often responded to my speech with three phrases, "slow down," "calm down," or "take a deep breath." I think it is their way of helping, but it implies that stuttering is easily controlled, that it is caused by nothing more than my own petty foolishness. I have often wondered if the same people might ask a blind person to "focus in" or recommend that a deaf person "listen a little harder." I would hope not. But, stuttering is not always seen as a "valid" condition, whatever that may mean. All too often it is still judged as a personal weakness, a character flaw rather than a physical condition.

Myth 3: Stutterers are not good leaders
Jack Welch was the youngest CEO General Electric ever had. He grew the company from a respectable $14 billion to the world's most valuable company, at an unimaginable $410 billion. Born to a working class family in 1935, by the 1990s Fortune 500 had named him the CEO of the century. Surprisingly, perhaps, he stuttered through each of those legendary years. He used his speech to improve, to bolster his own resilience, to inspire others not to falter in the face of failure. His story neatly disproves the theory that stuttering is a liability for leadership, or any sort of an indicator of mental weakness. Rather, stutterers can have more grit than the average employee, they have an inbuilt fighting insight that can drive them to succeed, to prove something to the world. They invite a rare sort of honesty and patience in those around them.

Myth 4: Stutterers are perpetually anxious
In most adults, the delivery of their speech betrays who they are or what they are feeling. It follows that stuttering looks like something people have seen before, something they recognize in their own stumbled speech. So the connection between stuttering and anxiety is naturally made. And yet stuttering is not caused by anxiety. As enigmatic as the causes of stuttering remain, research shows that it is tied up with the plastic chemistry of our brains and the complexities of our genetic code. So it is useful to retrain our reactions, to see stuttering as a distracting mask, to see the person and listen to their words. We need to train ourselves to suspend the assumption that our speech is always indicative of our mind's inner landscape.

Myth 5: It is easier to hire someone "normal"
As Seth Godin writes in We Are All Weird, "Those brave enough to seek the weird will thrive." It is easy to hire for the same qualities over and over. To hire the people who are safe (who come as close to normal as humanly possible), the ones that will tow the company line, who will do what is required, who won't make any waves. However, the most successful companies are the ones who evolve and change. Rather than striving for homogeneity, they are the ones who hire for difference. The ones who choose to reach out and connect with a myriad of diverse groups. In this environment, diversity is more than just a buzzword, it is the driver of innovation. They are the companies that hire and promote the outliers of the world, the ones with all the passion. "I like doing stories about the human condition, about struggle," explains Byron Pitts, a stutterer who is also an ABC News anchor and chief national correspondent. "I know what it means to struggle, what it means to be voiceless, for someone to say you don't matter. I like doing stories about the underdogs. I believe it's my job as a journalist to give a voice to the voiceless."

Not all stutterers are as passionate at Byron Pitts, or as driven as Jack Welch. We are not some unified whole. Like everyone, we can be our own worst critics and our worst enemies. The truth is that we are as varied as the rest of humanity. And it is this scale that we should be judged on: our personality, our intellect, our compassion and our capability rather than the voice we happened to be born into.

Katherine Preston the author of Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice, a memoir that chronicles the journey she went on to come to terms with her voice. She is also a public speaker, talking about the necessity of vulnerability and diversity in the workplace.

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