About the presenters: Dale F. Williams, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is an associate professor in the Communication Disorders program at Florida Atlantic University, where he directs the stuttering clinic. He also serves as a consultant for fluency cases for Language Learning Intervention and Professional Speech Services, Inc. A person who stutters, Dr. Williams co-founded the Boca Raton Chapter of the National Stuttering Association. His areas of research include diagnosis, treatment, physiologic correlates, and attitudes associated with fluency disorders.

Carlos F. Diaz, Ed.D. is a professor in the College of Education at Florida Atlantic University, where he also serves as project director for a master of education program in cultural foundations with E.S.O.L. endorsement. He is a member of the Board of Examiners for the National Council for the Accreditation of Colleges of Teacher Education. A native of Cuba, Dr. Diaz has published two books and numerous articles and book chapters on multicultural education. Specific areas of research include prejudice and stereotype reduction.

The Stereotyping of People Who Stutter: Origins, Effects, and Controls

by Dale F. Williams & Carlos F. Diaz
from Florida, USA

Let's begin with a gross oversimplification.

We exist in a diverse world, one swirling with intricacy and multiple shades of gray. Unfortunately, the only weapon we are given to combat the complexities we face is a brain no larger than a fist, housing a finite number of cells responsible for a multitude of functions.

So how do we make sense of a world we're ill equipped to understand? In essence, we classify. In academic-speak, we develop categorization schemas to impose structure onto a complex environment. It is a natural process that begins in the earliest stages of language development. A child learns a word, for example dog, and every animal is, for a while, called dog. In time, the child learns other animal names and, thus, small animals may all be classified as mouse, water animals fish, and so on, until the child has developed a complex categorization schema for animals that includes numerous species and means of classification.

Stereotypes Based on Speech

Viewed against this background, stereotyping can be seen as misclassification schemas applied to people. We group our fellow humans according to such characteristics as race, weight, age, attractiveness, and a multitude of other traits, including speech. Literature from the field of linguistics, for example, links differing stereotypes to various accents and languages (de Klerk & Bosch, 1995). Among American listeners, facility in Standard English is associated with higher mental capacity (Gollnick & Chinn, 1998). In addition to articulatory differences, voice characteristics have also been allied with specific personality traits (Blood, Mahan, & Hyman, 1979).

Stereotyping of People who Stutter

Not surprisingly, people who stutter also fall victim to stereotyping. In 1970, Yairi and Williams determined that speech-language therapists identified children who stutter as anxious, nervous, shy, quiet, and withdrawn, among other traits. Subsequent studies of speech and language professionals have yielded similar results (Cooper & Cooper, 1985; Woods & Williams, 1976). People who stutter also have been stereotyped in this manner by the general public (Silverman & Paynter, 1990), employers (Hurst & Cooper, 1983a), vocational rehabilitation counselors (Hurst & Cooper, 1983b), teachers (Yeakle & Cooper, 1986), school administrators (Lass et al. 1994), and pediatricians (Yairi & Carrico, 1992).

Different researchers have speculated on the existence of this "stutterer stereotype" (White & Collins, 1984). That is, why are those who stutter viewed as wallflowers as opposed to something louder or more assertive? The most obvious explanation is that they really are natural introverts, an explanation put forth by Woods and Williams (1976), then quickly dismissed as by the same authors as overly simplistic. There is, after all, no evidence to support that stereotype.

Woods and Williams (1976), also hypothesized that listeners react to the high anxiety of the stuttering moment, then generalize that the speaker is always anxious. A different explanation for the stereotype was offered by Thatchell and associates (1983), who concluded that the perception of stuttering speakers is a function of their poor eye contact, though the authors offered no evidence to back the contention that eye contact is abnormally low. Finally, White and Collins (1984) suggested that all people experience anxiety and tend to withdraw when they are disfluent. Thus, people overtly and abnormally disfluent are often seen as perpetually anxious and withdrawn.

Perhaps the most sensible speculation for the stutterer stereotype emerges from the research on attitudes toward speech. From an early age (somewhere around seven), people who stutter present increased speech-associated anxiety in comparison to non-stutterers (DeNil & Brutten, 1987). Given their negative experience histories with speech, it makes sense that stuttering individuals are, overall, less likely to be verbally outspoken or serve as the storytellers within their peer groups. From this, it is an easy overgeneralization to assume that similar traits exist in non-speech situations. Based on current knowledge, it is also incorrect. The lawyer who stutters will not negotiate less aggressively than fluent opposing counsel. A teacher may well be a strict disciplinarian, even if he or she stutters. Stuttering athletes are as apt to battle to the finish as their non-stuttering opponents.

This notion of overgeneralization, basing conclusions on limited or no evidence, is common to all of the possible stereotype derivations cited. Similar mental shortcutting serves to maintain stereotypes once they are set. We tend to assimilate observations into pre-existing schemas. In short, we interpret our observations in ways that make us comfortable. Data that support our view of the world are cited, those that do not are ignored or viewed as exceptions to our rules. With people who stutter, as with any group, it is possible to find individuals who fit the stereotype to varying degrees. Those are the examples we remember. The result of this selective classification is a view of life that is orderly and easy to grasp. Communication becomes more compact as well, if one assumes that terms such as feminist, doctor's kid, or stutterer convey an abundance of valid information in just a few syllables.

Our behaviors influence our classifications and vice versa, a cycle that serves to further maintain the stereotypes we develop. White and Collins (1984) wrote of a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby stuttering clients are induced to behave in a manner consistent with the speech-language pathologist's beliefs about them. Such a process is not limited to therapists. Anyone holding the aforementioned stereotype might talk more than usual around someone who stutters, reasoning that it is necessary to do so with those who are naturally quiet. The stereotype is thus supported when the person who stutters is forced into the passive conversational role.

Media portrayals of those who stutter are also worth mentioning. While the merits of specific portrayals (e.g., A Fish Called Wanda) have been debated without conclusion, evidence does exist that, in general, media depictions do influence beliefs about groups. In fact, Mackie and associates (1996) wrote that, along with friends and family, the media are the "most powerful transmitters of cultural stereotypes" in Western societies.

Finally, there is the frequently cited matter of the self-esteem of the person who engages in stereotyping. While the relationship between self-esteem and stereotyping has been debated (Stangor & Schaller, 1996), there does seem to be a link between individuals' feelings about themselves and the groups (e.g., cultural, gender, fluency) to which they belong. Denigrating other groups can be used to enhance one's view of self. Thus, it may follow that the stereotype associated with stuttering is particularly susceptible to maintenance in cultures where passivity, nervousness, etc. are socially unacceptable traits. People will look for a reason to attach such characteristics to others. When a speaker points out that someone is bland, the remark is often uttered to show that he, the speaker, is not.

The United States serves as a good example of a culture in which the stuttering stereotype is undoubtedly a negative one. Americans value boldness and confidence, reserving far less admiration for reticence. In this respect, we are far from unique. While other cultures may be more forgiving of the kind of traits associated with people who stutter, it is doubtful that anyone anywhere wishes to stutter for the resulting increase in esteem.

Effects of the Stereotype

The question begged by this discussion is: So what? More specifically, of what real importance is the stuttering stereotype? After all, there are certainly groups presented in far more negative ways.

So what? is a difficult question to answer, as published research has focused more on the makeup of the stereotype than its effects. Speculation is possible; firm conclusions are not. Despite the lack of empirical evidence, however, it would be ingenuous to believe that the effects are none. This is simply never the case with negative stereotypes. Social interactions, for example, are changed when one has to work past others' misperceptions. Inaccurate media portrayals may lead to embarrassment or even ridicule.

More disconcerting than the inconveniences of a negative stereotype, however, are the potentially lost chances professionally. Employers agree that job opportunities are decreased for those who stutter (Hurst & Cooper, 1983a), although it is unclear from this research whether the decrease is related to stereotyping. There is logic to the notion, however, that potential advancement could be adversely affected. A middle manager viewed as nervous and passive would have difficulty being promoted to vice-president, particularly if the president (or whoever is deciding the promotion) considered himself or herself to be fearless and aggressive. We do, after all, tend to think of ourselves in socially appropriate ways, and devalue characteristics that are inconsistent with our self-perceptions.

It is also a fair question to ask whether academic advancement is affected by the stereotype in question. To the extent that children who stutter are not placed in leadership positions within the classroom, are not allowed to speak as often as their peers, or are perceived negatively by teachers, academic progress is adversely impacted. Unfortunately, more research is needed to determine whether these scenarios are commonplace.

For speech-language pathologists, holding a stereotype of their stuttering clients has its own set of dangers. Lacking a true understanding of those you treat may well decrease effectiveness. Also, there is the issue of credibility. Many people who stutter are knowledgeable about their disorder. It is doubtful that these individuals will be impressed with trained professionals who present a limited understanding.

Controlling the Stutterer Stereotype

Given that stereotyping has invaded the area of stuttering with at least some negative effects, the next question is: What can be done? Stereotypes are, after all, extraordinarily resistant to change. It seems that once a categorization schema is set, it quickly becomes ingrained.

Probably the best place to start looking for solutions is to study what has been done to combat other stereotypes. Past attempts to broaden individuals' classification schemas have included both education about the groups being stereotyped and exposure to those from such groups. The first of these means, education, has been effective in changing dimensions of stereotyping alluded to above (i.e., organizing and simplifying the social environment; justifying actions toward those who are different; creating distinctiveness across groups) (Worchel & Rothgerber, 1997). For some, information about groups can expand their classification schemas, even change existing stereotypes to more positive ones. For others, unfortunately, education will have little effect.

It is important to note that the outcomes of educational efforts are not solely dependent upon the individual being educated. They are also functions of the information conveyed. If, for example, a news story reported that 90% of people who stutter tally perfect scores on their SATs, the change in the existing stereotype would likely be quick and widespread. Unfortunately, no such information exists. Informing people that stuttering individuals have been successful in all walks of life, including those necessitating courage and outspokenness (which, unlike the SAT example, is true) will have a more gradual and limited effect.

Another positive corrective to stereotyping is exposure to those from the groups in question. To be maximally effective, however, the exposure must occur in situations of status similarity. A wealthy student is less likely to change his stereotype of people who stutter if his family's maid suffers from the disorder than he is if assigned a disfluent roommate in medical school.

Assuming status similarity, it can be said that the more exposure to individuals of the stereotyped group, the more variability one sees. Narrow classification schemas thus become more difficult to justify and keep. But although the variability across people who stutter is enormous, such exposure is nevertheless difficult because of the low prevalence of the disorder.

Whether the battle against the stutterer stereotype takes the form of exposure, education, or some combination of the two, creative strategies are needed. Individuals who stutter, support group members, researchers, speech-language pathologists, and others can all aid the effort. Information can be conveyed via conversations, workshops, written materials, videos, formal presentations, and numerous means not yet considered. The following goals, while not an exhaustive list, may help in the development of an initial strategy.

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The authors wish to thank Patricia Jarman and McNeel Gordon for their willingness and ability to track down research outside their own areas of expertise.

September 21, 1999