Detained in Atlanta for Stuttering: The Canadian Stuttering Association Interview with Kylie Simmons

One woman who stutters has taken the internet by storm after she was discriminated against and detained at an airport. Why was she detained? Because she stuttered on the words “Costa Rica”. 

Kylah Simmons aka Kylie Simmons (pictured left), aged 20, was detained and questioned for over an hour  at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on January 21, 2016 on her travels back from Costa Rica, where she is studying abroad, to come visit her family in the United States. The Canadian Stuttering Association was granted the opportunity to have a chat with Kylie, where we had the chance to dig deeper into her experience in Atlanta and discuss her stuttering advocacy work and her thoughts on travelling with a stutter. Read more to check out our interview with Kylie.

Danielle Moed (DM): So to start, would you be able to tell us a bit about yourself (e.g. your work, hobbies, etc.)?

Kylie Simmons (KH): I am a current Junior at Kalamazoo College (In Kalamazoo, Michigan), where I am studying Psychology with a concentration in Media Studies. I am currently on a long term study abroad program in San Jose, Costa Rica. In the future, I aspire to be a television producer. I enjoy doing yoga as well as dancing.

 

DM: Would you be able to tell us briefly the story of your detainment in Atlanta due to your stutter?

KS: On Thursday, January 21st, 2016, as I returned to the U.S. to visit my family from my study abroad program in Costa Rica, I was detained for what felt like an hour, in customs within the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport because of my stutter, a speech impediment that I have no control over. When I was pulled aside in customs, one of the first questions asked was relating to if there was something wrong with me. I explained to the staffer that I had a speech impediment and that I stuttered. Although I explained my disability, I continued to be questioned. During this moment, I felt intimidated and bullied, as I was bullied growing up because of my stutter. In addition, my phone was taken away, restricting any contact with my family, I missed my connecting flight, and I was questioned about my stutter and constantly called dishonest and a liar. After the event took place, I immediately spoke with the supervisor of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Atlanta. I was given a verbal apology and told that she would speak to the customs staff about proper conduct. I was not asking for anyone to be fired and I was not seeking money. I simply wanted an apology from the staff member involved as well as the customs staff members to be more educated about stuttering awareness for the next time they encounter someone with a disability, especially because there will be two stuttering conferences held in Atlanta this year, in which many stutterers will be coming from all over the world. I, along with other supporters, have helped to launch a social media movement in support of my experience. The hashtag #DDDetainedInAtlanta sparked media attention as well as awareness internationally and nationally. The hashtag not only was used to urge the employees of the airport to be more educated on stuttering awareness, it helped spread stutter awareness. I refuse to let this happen again to anyone else. I want to spread more stutter awareness as well as let people who stutter know that they have a voice.

 

DM: On your Twitter profile you indicate that you are a stuttering advocate. Could you tell us about what kind of stuttering advocacy work you have done and what you are working on now?

KS: I have always been active in the stutter community. After attending a National Stuttering Association conference as well as Camp Our Time (Now called Camp SAY - The Stuttering Association for the Young), I decided to create an online stutter support group called Stutter With A Group during my time in high school. I also mentored and hope to continue to mentor young people who stutter through FRIEDNS: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter. In addition, I have done speeches in multiple institutions in order to spread stutter awareness and to share my personal experience as a person who stutters.

 

DM: How has your experience in Atlanta affected your advocacy work?

KS: My experience in Atlanta has not only encouraged me to embrace my own stutter, it has also allowed me to want to be the voice of those who have been silenced because of their stutter. I want to show others, especially those who face challenges such as stuttering, to know that they have a right to speak up. I believe that social media is a power tool for social change. Sharing my story online has served as a teaching moment for people who stutter and people who do not stutter. After my study abroad program is over, I will continue to do speeches based on my stutter journey. As a proud alumni, I will actually be visiting SAY - The Stuttering Association for the Young in New York City in order to share my story with others in March of this year.

 

DM: What have you learned, personally, from your experience in Atlanta?

KS: This experience served as a teaching moment for me and a learning experience for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. My experience in Atlanta has taught me that I, along with others, have a voice. I have a right to speak up if I feel like my stutter is being challenged or misunderstood. It has also taught me that some people may be ignorant or uneducated about stuttering. It is our job to not feel defeated by a negative experience, but to take a negative situation and turn it into a positive impact.

 

DM: Do you have any advice for people who stutter, particularly in regards to traveling (especially abroad)?

KS: I would advise people who stutter to be upfront about their speech impediment, in order to give the person who you are speaking with a heads up. I partnered up with The Stuttering Foundation in order to create “I Stutter” cards. I think this card is great because it helps educate the person who you are talking to about stuttering, in order to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. With this card, if comfortable, I could verbally say that I have a speech impediment. It’s unfortunate that we almost have to prove that we have a speech impediment, but I think that taking these simple steps will help spread stuttering awareness.

 

DM: After your Atlanta experience, you collaborated with the Stuttering Foundation to create informative cards for people who stutter to share with staff when travelling or otherwise when needed (which is amazing!). Why do you think cards like this have not be made available before?

KS: I think a lot of times, people do not think as stuttering as an impediment. It is often an impediment that is not discussed a lot. In media, for example, stuttering is made fun of. I think cards like this will help to spread stutter awareness as well as help to allow people who stutter to be more respected and treated more equally.

 

DM: How did you and The Stuttering Association decide what information was to be used on the cards?

KS: After the incident, I immediately contacted The Stuttering Foundation, explaining to them what happened. They thought that it would be a great idea to create a card for people who stutter. A few days later, the card was created! It was perfect, because when returning to Costa Rica, I had a chance to use my laminated “I Stutter” card in the airport.

 

DM: Would you have felt the need to carry a card like this with you previous to your experience in Atlanta?

KS: I travel a lot, so I think this card would have been beneficial, especially if I had used the card when going through the Atlanta airport. I think that if I had had this card handy, the outcome could have been different.

 

DM: How do you think these cards will be received publicly by the transport/ travel industry? Do you think there needs to be additional work done in collaboration with these industries to educate their stuff about stuttering and to ensure these cards are recognized as a valid document?

KS: I hope that the transport/ travel industry will receive these cards with an opened mind, because it will serve as a teaching moment for them. It will definitely help avoid misunderstanding, in my opinion. I agree that there needs to be additional work done in collaboration with these industries in order to educate staff about stuttering and to endure these cards are recognized as a valid document. Stuttering awareness is especially important for their staff because there will be two stutter conferences held in Atlanta this year.

 

DM: Are you worried at all about the potential misuse of the cards or them not being considered as a valid document? If so, what do you think can be done to avoid these potential issues?

KS: I hope that the card will be considered as a valid document. I certainly hope that that the cards are not misused. One of the main concerns I have with this card is that, instead of verbally speaking, people who stutter will let the card speak for them instead of speaking. I want to encourage people who stutter to speak and use the card, not to solely use the card to do the speaking for them.

 

DM: Do you have any other comments you would like to share about these cards?

KS: The cards are available to download for free on The Stuttering Foundation website. I would recommend laminating the card to avoid damage to the paper.

 

DM: What kind of work or training do you believe should be done by staff in the transportation/travel industries to ensure similar situations to yours do not occur?

KS: I have been informed that the National Stuttering Association has been in close contact with TSA as well as the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. I think that training needs to be done in terms of stuttering awareness. The airport should definitely be prepared when the stutter conferences in Atlanta happen.

 

DM: The 2016 National Stuttering Association is being held in Atlanta this year and many Canadians who stutter will be travelling to be in attendance. Since Canadians are not covered under the American disability act and Canada does not have a federal disability act at this time, do you have any advice for Canadians who stutter while traveling?

KS: That’s a good question. I was actually made aware that people with disabilities who are traveling can fill out a notification that gives TSA a heads up about their impediment. I would contact the airport that you will be flying into and ask them about options in order to avoid misunderstanding.

 

DM: Although Canada does not have a federal disability act, we do have some provincial acts (e.g. The Ontarians with Disabilities act). Do you think Canadians should campaign to have a federal disability act for issues such as travel that can apply to all Canadians across the board?

KS: I think that is it a great idea to campaign to have a federal disability act that can apply to all Canadians across the board. I think that it will help give a voice to Canadian stutterers! I think it will also encourage other countries to do the same.

 

At the end of the interview we asked Kylie is she had any final thoughts or advice to share with people who stutter.

 

She told us “The main message I hope to achieve from this experience is to let others know that stuttering awareness is important. I really hope that others who are facing different challeneges learn to speak up and take a stand. EVERYONE has a voice, as we all deserved to be heard”.

 

The main take away here is that we do all #HaveAVoice. Our voices deserved to be heard and we can make them heard.

 

If you would like to follow Kylie and participate in her #DDDetainedInAtlanta campaign you can find her on twitter @_Kylie_Simmons. Additionally, if you would like to download the Stuttering ID card for travel, you can find it at http://www.stutteringhelp.org/sites/default/files/I_Stutter_Cards.pdf