Living Stutter-Free for 5 Days

Richard HolmesRichard, left, with friends at NSA2015
A few months ago, I came the closest I've ever come to having my childhood dream of a stutter-free life come true. Ironically, it was at a place where there is more stuttering per square foot that you could find anywhere else in the world. This was the first year I have attended the National Stuttering Association’s Annual Conference, and I hope that by sharing the surprising lessons I learned it might encourage other Canadians to make the trip to the conference in Atlanta next year.

Usually when I sign up for an event, I cringe as I think about all of the people I will have to introduce myself to. This is a dreaded task for me since, like most of us who stutter, I tend to stutter profusely on my own name. It often leads people to have the type of unflattering reactions that make the situation even more uncomfortable. When I signed up for this conference however, I assumed that the fear described above would be nowhere to be found. Everyone else would stutter, so what was there to worry about? To the contrary, I felt a whole new sense of fear.

Placing the blame

I had put so much effort into learning speech therapy techniques I doubted my skills at just being a personI realized that, for my whole life, I have used having a stutter as a psychological safety net to catch me from blaming myself for any social failures I have had. If people didn’t want to talk me to or didn’t want to be my friend, I blamed my speech, not myself as a person. When everyone else stutters, this excuse is not an option. The new fear was that of being, in a sense, a person who did not stutter. If these people didn’t like me, that would mean they really didn’t like ME. What would I do then? I had put so much effort into learning speech therapy techniques that I wondered if my skills at just being a person had been put on the back burner.

Person First

I understood then how important ‘person first’ language is when referring to those who have this disorder. I first noticed that writers in the stuttering community almost always referred to stutterers as ‘people who stutter’, but I never thought any more of it than an academic formality. But I realized that by calling myself a ‘stutterer’, I am a disorder first and a person second. This small tendency in my language could have been at least part of the reason for the lack of solidarity and confidence in my character. So for the first time ever, I would allow myself to focus on all the things I would focus on if my speech was never a diagnosed disorder. 

New awarenesses

There were two things I noticed almost immediately when I let go of my preoccupation with stuttering. The first was that I still switched my words, and what I want to say, a startling amount in hopes of avoiding disfluencies. It was as if I assumed that the listener would rather hear me make fluent noises with my mouth than hear what ideas I actually have. This takes away the entire purpose of communication, and it needed to stop immediately!

 I began to think about what it meant to be a good communicator and listener, independent of fluencySecond, I began to think about what it meant to be a good communicator and listener, independent of the fluency of one’s speech. It became obvious how insignificant brief moments of stuttering are to a person's conversation skills. I met people who flipped the stereotype of a person who stutters on it's head as they captured my attention with their eloquent stories and provocative questions. They maintained an incredibly cool poise and most importantly, produced lengthy blocks and repetitions. I learnt that you can be a terrible communicator with brilliantly fluent speech and you can be a brilliant communicator with terribly disfluent speech. By working on these aspects of communication, I began to see how many of the negative reactions I thought store clerks and waiters at restaurants had because of my disfluencies were largely due to the poor communication habits that I had developed as secondary habits, not my stutter itself. I found that by improving my eye contact and using the words I initially intended to say, the reactions were different while my stutter remained.

Finding joy in communication

Perhaps a life full of stuttering can be pretty incredible! Realizing that people who stutter are people first was an amazing and liberating experience. I was able to think about what I was saying more than how I was saying it, leading me to be proud of the words that I expressed, no matter the delivery. My success at making friends was based on who I am as a person, not if I can get my name out. If we weren’t enjoying sharing stories and experiences about having a stutter, the fact that I have stuttered my entire life would have slipped my mind entirely. I was free from my preoccupation with stuttering and able to truly enjoy communication for the first time in my life. Most importantly, I realized that all of these lovely friends I met and experiences I had were not in spite of my stutter, but because I stutter. We are funny, smart, successful and interesting people and we can thank our stuttering for making us that way. Attending the conference makes some of our dreams of living stutter free life come true, but at the same time it makes us realize that perhaps a life full of stuttering can be pretty incredible as well. 

Richard Holmes is a student in Waterloo, Ontario. He has given a successful Tedx talk on stuttering, and has been featured in a previous article on this site.