The Blessing And Curse Of Digital Communications For Stuttering

The Blessing And Curse Of Digital Communications For Stuttering
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Most people know someone who stutters — a family member, friend, classmate or coworker. One out of every hundred people stutters, which translates into 70 million people worldwide. That’s more than the entire population of France.

For some people who stutter, communicating can be quite a challenge. While it’s proven that people who stutter are no less intelligent than the rest of the population, the inability speak one’s own name, order food at a restaurant or drive-thru window, or talk fluently with people in authority presents many challenges for some people, as well as quizzical looks from people who don’t stutter.

The rise of digital communications has provided a seemingly wonderful tool for the stuttering community, which for decades had struggled using the telephone. From the widespread use of email to the rise of websites for ordering and solving customer service issues to the more recent explosion of texting and social media, people who struggle with fluency can use their fingers instead of their words to “talk” throughout much of their day. In the land of digital communication, none of us struggles with fluency. Our words can be carefully constructed, if we choose, and flow as fast as the reader can consume them — without interruption, hesitation, repetition or blocks.

But digital communication cannot be a total replacement for interaction for anyone, especially those within the stuttering community. We must venture out and talk to family, friends, colleagues, customers, teachers and many others. According to studies by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle published in TIME magazine, digital communications is eroding all of our interpersonal skills, and for children it’s stunting skill development all together. That isn’t a good thing.

Malcolm Fraser, founder of the Stuttering Foundation, didn’t have the benefit of email, websites, Facebook or texting during his career as a business executive, but he never let his stutter hold him back. Despite his disfluency, he built his successful businesses through relationships he had cultivated personally — one syllable at a time — with customers and employees alike. At the annual company dinner, he himself read the names of each and every employee being recognized for their years of service, despite how arduous a task it was for him say each name and for the audience to hear. He looked each recipient in the eye, shook their hand and made sure they knew how grateful he was. Malcolm understood the importance of interpersonal communication, and how it trumped his own discomfort with his stutter.

Today, that simple ceremony could be replaced by a posted on a company’s intranet or an email sent from the HR department with a note of thanks—but the outcome would likely be dramatically different.

“Digital communications are here to stay and have great value, but let’s challenge ourselves, within the stuttering community, not to let it replace the skill of interpersonal relationship development.”

Digital communications are here to stay and have great value, but let’s challenge ourselves, within the stuttering community, not to let it replace the skill of interpersonal relationship development. Most speech-language pathologists, when working with a person who stutters, will counsel the need to speak often and to stutter openly, rather than to hide it. Many in the stuttering community find it valuable to join groups that focus on public speaking, like Toastmasters, as a way to push themselves to talk and stutter openly, to gain confidence and find their voice.

In his book Self-Therapy for the Stutterer, first published in 1978, Malcolm Fraser reminds us of one of the keys to fluency which remains true today:

Trying to hide your stuttering only helps to perpetuate it. Tell people with whom you talk that you are a stutterer and adopt an attitude of being willing to stutter voluntarily. If you adopt a frank and open attitude, it will help to reduce what shame and embarrassment you may have about your difficulty.

In the recent Oscar-winning short film Stutterer, we see what happens when stuttering is kept secret to the detriment of interpersonal relationships. At some point, the truth is revealed and the outcome may not be worth the years of hiding.

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