T-T-T-TODAY JUNIOR: Severe Stutter
We’ve all heard that age-old saying: when life gives you a stutter, build a ridiculous vocabulary from an early age so as to avoid saying words you physically can’t say.
My name’s Matt, I’m 27 years old, and I have a severe stutter. Stuttering is generally defined as a speech disorder where you involuntarily repeat or prolong sounds or syllables while speaking, in addition to moments where speech (again, involuntarily) has unnatural pauses or blocks. In more severe cases (hello!), stutterers can also present with secondary (or “struggle”) behaviours, which can look like head twitches, arm movements, eye movements… again, all involuntary. Stuttering is actually pretty common in kids, and around 60% of kids who stutter will either just grow out of it or get over it with the help of speech therapy. About 20% of us (again, hello!) are not so lucky.
The only real treatment for stuttering is intensive speech therapy aimed at slowing down your speech and having you really focus on connecting your words together so as not to introduce any breaks in speech in which a stutter can jump in. But, like so many brain rewiring processes (think learning a language), it’s most effective at an early age. So while I went through YEARS of speech therapy, different programs, different speech-language pathologists, nothing ever completely worked. It would get a little better for a while, but it would always come back with a vengeance. And the studies show that if you’re a stutterer still into puberty, you’re very likely going to be a stutterer for the rest of your days.
Every stutterer stutters differently (say that 3 times fast – I can’t even say the word “stutter,” how unfair is that). Personally, my stutter presents as a lot of “blocks,” where my face gets scrunched up and I physically can’t move it to make the next sound in a word, and a behaviour I’ve subconsciously developed to try and get some more air in before a word where I just go “uh-uh-uh-uh” a bunch of times before a word. Bonus: my head jerks back and forth when I stutter and my eyes go all over the place, in which I think my body is trying to physically fling the words out of my face. Understandably, this causes concern in some people when I’m talking and suddenly it looks like a ghost has taken hold of me and is violently shaking me around. (Thanks for the visual, Jeremie, I’m carrying that with me for life.)
You can see how this may affect various social interactions for me. Growing up, I did my best to speak as little possible because I hated the stares and potential mockery for talking like I do, and I still do to this day. I don’t like talking. Historically, it has not been a good time for me. I have a really hard time talking on the phone, talking to any sort of authority figure, any public speaking… and it’s very much tied to my emotional state. Stress, excitement, tiredness – these are all things that I know trigger a bad stuttering day. I also don’t do great in job interviews. I stutter a lot more, and generally with employers that looks like I’m just too nervous to function, or sometimes (re: a lot of the time) they take it as a sign that I’m …mentally incompetent. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone into an interview, stuttered, and then had the interviewer smile a really big fake Cheshire-cat smile and talk to me in a big calm soothing voice like I’m a puppy. GUYS, I HAVE THOUGHTS, IT JUST TAKES A WHILE FOR THEM TO GET OUT.
It took me a really long time to accept this part of me as a genuine disability. I fought against that label for a long time, until it hit me a few years back that this IS a disabling condition for me, and that it’s OK to ask for help. That being said, I really wish the world we live in was more understanding and accommodating of speech disorders, which are very much an invisible disability. For instance – who made the decision that some things (like talking to your bank or credit card company, or to your insurer) NEED to be done over the phone? I was once told – point-blank – by my credit card company over the phone that if I couldn’t make myself understood, they would hang up. And they did. What’s the point of voice recognition if you have a really hard time turning on your voice? Accessibility is not just an issue for the physical world, and I’m always trying to sell people on that point.
All of this to say, that I have not let this stop me from doing what I want to do. I give oral presentations on my grad school research on a regular basis, I muddle through phone calls almost on the daily, and I make sure that my voice is heard. I know I have my bad days – sometimes I can see them coming and I plan for it, sometimes I don’t and I get through it anyway. I have a voice. It sounds a little different, it takes a little longer, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have things to say.