Why the Laughs Stop: Exploring Stigma Change in Stuttering

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The ease of stuttering in front of new people is unsettling, as if it was more comfortable to do so with the expectation of someone laughing. It no longer feels like anyone will laugh or negatively react, and I don’t anticipate or expect it either. The unsettling nature comes from bracing for its impact for so many years that I don’t know how to just stutter in these moments. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this of late because of all the opportunities to stutter with new audiences and people who know nothing about the way I talk. This reality is changing my perspective. It has been hard for me to believe that others accept my stutter, too, upon first sight. 

In recent years, I’ve chosen to put myself through the social anxiety ringer in both my personal and professional life. What I have done and do daily has alleviated the struggle that once stood in my way from these learning experiences. 

Yet, let’s be honest—the reactions to how I stutter still happen. For the most part, though, they are subtle micro-reactions. I see them in the moment and it is the rare occasion when someone comments. 

For reference, I stutter without restraints. If I’m pushing my limits of stuttering and social endurance, the blocks are long, secondary behaviors creep into my pattern, and it can get awkward for even me. There are times when I’m not that efficient or forward moving with my stuttering. Simply, I can stutter quite severely at times. 

So, why aren’t people laughing at me anymore?

My thoughts have run the spectrum from they must laugh and make comments behind my back to did they even notice how bad I stuttered? It’s weird because I can’t hide my stutter and I’ve come to a point where grace is my default to overt reactions. By this I mean I’ve become indifferent to reactions that are, in fact, still are occurring but I’m processing them differently. Undoubtedly so and giving grace to others surprised by my stutter is mutually reassuring. 

This is where I’ll launch into the exploration. Grace and exposure to moments when I need to use it has helped me develop appropriately toned responses to my audience. With new people and situations, I have a full repertoire of ways to say I stutter that flows out with my stutter-filled words to allow myself and my audience to know that what I’m doing is stuttering and that everything is okay. If I convey it without hesitance, seamlessly, then I cultivate a presence and space with the shared experience of if I’m confidently stuttering away and they perceive it as such, then they’ll be understanding as well. Then I can continue stuttering with abandon while nurturing the communicative connection. 

When I walk into a social situation and stutter without restraints, I am projecting a presence that exudes confidence. As if I’m saying, “Hey, I stutter. It’s how I talk. I’m totally fine with it.” This confidence really leaves a lasting first impression, telling the audience that they can be comfortable absorbing the initial surprise of my stutter and then the corresponding compassion that will result from my comfort level.

Recently, all of this has been happening almost without intention. I’m just entering new, once highly feared situations, stuttering, and nonchalantly disclosing that I stutter. 

For example, I attended a leadership development conference this week. There were 30 other attendees, none of which I knew. The conference was geared towards openness, communication, and, naturally, networking. The usual introductions came and went, I stuttered through my name and even volunteered to go first. Following introductions, the instructors facilitated an icebreaker to get everyone talking. It was a storytelling exercise in which we could choose from a list of questions to share a story, like the meaning of our names, the best leaders we knew, or share a specific life goal. 

Without thought, I used my story as an opportunity to talk about stuttering while proudly showing my stutter. I mentioned that my name was the hardest thing for me to say because of my stutter and quickly segued into how I am in the process of self-publishing a memoir about my journey through stuttering. I didn’t know what I was going to say when I started but it effortlessly came out in a succinct story. There were no laughs, lots of positive comments and responses, and several deep conversations, such as a man sharing with me afterwards the story of raising his special needs son. 

Experiences without reactions continue to accumulate.

Still, why? 

I have to think back to the times when my stutter made people laugh or thought that it was okay to question whether I forgot my name—the inciting and fleeting reactions that traumatized me. The unwillingness to write the answer that has been gaining momentum in my thoughts scares me because I truly want to believe it. 

The stigma that accompanies stuttering is beginning to evolve, and each of us who stutters can change it through our own actions. 

We who stutter are living through the best era in all of human history to both stutter and change its unfortunate perception, the stain it leaves on our identities. 

Some of the change is a byproduct of cancel culture, the diversity, equity, inclusion, and access movement, or the progress—yes, progress—from other human rights awareness efforts on to stuttering, such as ableism. I believe and see that those actions have had an outsized impact on priming the social environment to embrace stigma change in stuttering. But, that underestimates the impact on stigma made by each of us who stutters, as well as the collective stuttering community, who have already normalized stutter-filled speech as beautiful and a normal way to talk. 

The momentum from all of the above is finally chipping away at what has always been viewed as stigma, which used to only mean disability. The number of times I have shown up to a communicative interaction, stuttered with confidence and indifference, and moved on to the next without trauma conveys a presence that sticks with my audience. Sure, there are people in my daily life that already know I stutter and know how to interact with me, but the people who experience it for the first time are somehow paying in forward in untold ways by not reacting, negatively. 

We who stutter openly are commanding respect. We’re not fighting for it. We’re commanding it with our presence, our willingness to stutter, staring down misperceptions about it, and nurturing a new visual profile of what it means to stutter. This stuttering proudly presence leaves a lasting impression, one that our audience never forgets. Remember, stigma is a mark of disgrace that brands us without having any say in how its levied upon us. 

If my own personal stigma imprinted by stuttering is evolving, what could that mean for the stuttering community writ large?

I will get laughed at again. I will forget my name again. We who stutter will collectively get laughed at again. However, I cannot overlook the many more times when my stutter is met with compassion, well-intentioned curiosity, a desire to connect, and the silence brought about by the awe of the respect that I command. 

From Here, Forward

Where do we go from here? How can we ensure the stigma keeps fading from our identities and public presence? What can we do to accelerate this evolution or to ensure the momentum continues?

Others who stutter experience this reality as well. The problem is that the laughs—negative stigma and feedback—will likely continue to outshine the luster of awe and compassion that I am often experiencing these days. We’ve all seen it, particularly on social media, when someone mocks stuttering or plays into the stigma and we all rise up to fight back. (I’m right there with you doing just that.)

But, we need to start celebrating all of the moments when we aren’t wronged by the stigma. Not just the huge, inciting, life-changing successes of stuttering openly. All of them. The times you introduced yourself, made the phone call you wanted to avoid, ordered the steak with garlic butter that you never do, chose vulnerability over protection, and connect with others because of your stutter, and no one communicated negative feedback. These are the moments in which you learn how to command respect from others by showing you’re okay with your stutter. And, you know what, doing so will soften the reactions cast towards other people who stutter that our audiences will inevitably meet. 

We can change the stigma on our own, and for everyone else who stutters that comes along after us. 

Questions to Explore

Since I’m still working through this new reality, I thought it best to share some of the questions I am continuing to consider as I try to understand this change in stigma towards my stuttering. Take some time to sit with them and think about how they apply to your own experiences, or whether your perspectives may be evolving as well.

  • How am I presenting stuttering to others? 
  • How do I disclose stuttering? What are the words that I use? When do I disclose and when do I choose not to, and why?
  • Are others reacting to my stuttering? If so, what is the feedback I receive? Is it seen or heard, intentional or without malice?
  • What do I do when there is a reaction? How do I process it and how does it make me feel inside?
  • What is my grace tolerance in response to reactions?
  • How often is there no reaction or feedback to my stuttering? What is the ratio in comparison to when there is feedback?
  • In general, do I feel others are accepting of my stutter and openness?
  • What percentage of my social interactions are with others who know I stutter and how to communicate with me verses those who are hearing and seeing my stuttering for the first time?
  • Define my daily social environments. Who, what, where, when, why, and how? Are differences accepted more often than not? Do I meet a lot of new people? Have I settled into a comfortable ecosystem of those who already accept my stutter? Do I avoid others that don’t? Are there parts of it where I can push my limits?
  • How does cancel culture apply to stuttering?
  • How does DEIA apply to stuttering?
  • How does the progress of other human rights awareness efforts, such as ableism, apply to stuttering?
  • What does the stigma of stuttering mean to me? 
  • Has stigma evolved throughout my journey through stuttering?
  • Do I believe that the stigma of stuttering can change?

These questions are forming the basis for a new perspective that I’m carrying into each moment of stuttering. Its new and unfamiliar, and somewhat uncomfortable, but here it is for me to explore further. I look forward to sharing some of my experiences as I continue to move through it and I hope you will do the same as well. 

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