|About the presenter: Bob Quesal Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a professor at Western Illinois University where he serves as Program Director. He is a member of the Steering Committee for ASHA's Special Interest Division 4 (Fluency and Fluency Disorders) and is a member of the National Stuttering Association's Research Committee. He is recognized as a Fluency Specialist by the Specialty Board in Fluency Disorders.|
I take things personally. I probably shouldn't, but I do. Most times that isn't a problem but it has been, at least occasionally, when I try to juggle my professional life and my personal life. I'm a speech-language pathologist who happens to stutter. Or maybe I'm a stutterer who happens to be a speech-language pathologist. Or a person who stutters who happens to…well, you get my point.
All my life I've dealt with people who just don't "get it" when it comes to stuttering. (I have to admit that for the first twenty or so years of my life, I was probably one of those who didn’t get it.) When I was young, I got lots of advice from those people - take a deep breath, think of what you're going to say, slow down - none of which helped, but they didn't know any better. I can now forgive them because they were just uninformed.
When I got into what I refer to as my "good" speech therapy in college, I also discovered the academic field of Speech-Language Pathology. I was pretty excited. I had a chance to read things written by folks like Wendell Johnson, Joseph Sheehan, Charles Van Riper and others. I was encouraged to read "Stuttering and What You Can Do About It" by Johnson and "To the Stutterer" from the Speech Foundation of America (now the Stuttering Foundation of America). Hey, these guys got it! Finally, somebody understood what I was going through! Somebody could see that it wasn't just that occasionally I was unable to speak fluently - there was a lot more to it than that! Johnson, and the authors in "To the Stutterer" (twenty-four speech pathologists who stuttered), wrote about how they had done the same stupid things I had done - avoid words and situations, order things I didn’t want in a restaurant, get frustrated when my fluency would fail at the most inopportune times - yeah, baby, these guys knew what I had experienced. And they had good advice and suggestions. And they empathized - I wasn't a bad person for doing those things, it was a very natural human reaction. I'd never thought of it that way before. If the field of speech-language pathology was full of enlightened folks like these, it clearly was the profession for me. I decided to pursue speech pathology as a career.
It turned out that not everyone in speech-language pathology was as enlightened as the authors in "To the Stutterer." Over the years, I have met many SLPs who are intolerant of stuttered speech. I can usually deal with these people because they generally are interested in disorder areas like language, or phonology, or dysphagia (or anything but fluency), and may not have had a very good stuttering class when they were in college, so they don’t really understand stuttering. I've had to battle these folks at various times in my career, at times because they don't think people who stutter should be in the profession. Their argument usually goes something like this: People who stutter are hard to talk to. They make me uncomfortable. If they can be fluent in [situation A] why can't they be fluent all the time? Or: Because they can't be fluent in [situation B] they can't be fluent at all. As my late mother used to say, these folks are "more to be pitied than scorned" because they missed out on "Stuttering 099" - the remedial class where you learn the most basic thing that everyone has to know about stuttering: The Behavior Varies. If you don't know that, if you don't understand that, if you can't accept that - you really don’t know stuttering. These folks would say I don't know a lot about other aspects of speech-language pathology, and they'd probably be right. But, when they start talking about stuttering, they get close to a nerve and I tend to react - remember, I take things personally. Because of that, some of my colleagues probably don't think very highly of me.
One other thing that has personally bothered me over the years is that so many of the people who don’t get it when it comes to stuttering - nearly all of them, in fact - don’t stutter. I really dislike the "us against them" kinds of arguments that this leads to. But it troubles me when someone who has never stuttered tries to tell me what it is like. It’s even more frustrating to me when someone tries to deny my reality (and that of other people who stutter) since he or she has never experienced it and therefore, apparently, cannot understand it (or does not want to try to understand it). Some people who have never stuttered have no problem at all telling me what I experience (or what I should experience when I stutter. You’d think that when people who stutter say that there’s more to it than fluency breakdown, that would carry some weight. But many people apparently have decided that since all they can see is disfluency, that is all that is important. Since they’ve never experienced the "beneath the surface" aspects of stuttering, they choose to dismiss those as unimportant.
Of course, many of my colleagues - most of them, actually - do understand stuttering. What I have enjoyed most about my choice of Speech-Language Pathology as a career is that I have a cohort of colleagues who do care about stuttering. Many of my colleagues stutter and we have shared many experiences and stories about how we have coped with our stuttering. Many of my colleagues do not stutter, of course, but they understand stuttering - they "get it" - and they enjoy talking about stuttering, stuttering research, stuttering treatment, nearly anything that relates to stuttering. Over the years, as I've met more and more people in the area of stuttering, I've discovered some of the finest people I've ever known. These colleagues have become both my personal and professional friends. Even if the profession of speech-language pathology in general seems to care less and less about stuttering and fluency disorders (see my essay from last year's ISAD conference, "The Death of Fluency Disorders" and Yaruss & Quesal, 2002), I know I have a group of fabulous colleagues who do care about stuttering and fluency disorders.
One of the places where I can gather with my fluency friends and colleagues is at the annual Leadership Conference of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's Special Interest Division 4 for Fluency and Fluency Disorders. Obviously, people who attend the SID4 Leadership Conferences care about stuttering and are truly interested in issues that affect people who stutter. The SID4 Leadership Conference is a meeting I look forward to attending each year. I had the honor of co-chairing this year's conference with Dr. Larry Molt from Auburn University. The conference was held in Albuquerque, NM and the topic was therapy services in the schools. Larry and I worked pretty hard (along with other SID4 Steering Committee members) to make the conference a good one, and when it was over, most people had good things to say, both in person and in the evaluation forms that they completed at the end of the conference. Once again, it was a real pleasure to interact with my fluency colleagues.
A few days after the conference, Larry and I received a letter from a well-known behaviorist who had attended the meeting. He had been quite cordial during the meeting and seemed pleased with the way things had gone. His letter began with a pleasant enough tone, saying "I compliment you both for the seamless, efficient, and effective conduct of the meeting, not to mention the wonderful, needed humor at many points." Nice enough. But in the next sentence, he went on:
Like I said, I was dumbfounded. This was unlike anything I had ever heard in my 25-plus years in the profession of Speech-Language Pathology. None of my colleagues ever said anything close to this to me. There were three primary things (and a bucketload of secondary and tertiary things) about this letter that offended me at a deeply personal level. First, that someone who allegedly has spent his life helping people who stutter could be so intolerant of, or uncomfortable with, stuttered speech. ("…seeing you speak…with a mix of…stuttering and…normal fluency was of great concern to me.") Second, that he estimated my speech at 50% fluent. Believe me, my speech has been measured many, many times by many, many people over many, many years and even my inexperienced students come up with better numbers than this. Third, and perhaps most importantly, I was offended that this person felt that he could draw so many conclusions about me based on our relatively brief interaction. ("…whether you like it or not, you are powerful models…", "I would guess you…want to speak normally fluently", "If you can speak normally fluently half the time, why don't you do it all the time?", "I would ask…you to reexamine your present position and behavior.")
In my opinion, these were not the idle observations (or helpful suggestions) of a colleague, these were personal attacks. I take things personally and I certainly took these things personally. Apparently in this person's opinion, a person who stutters should not be leading a meeting about stuttering. A person who continues to stutter has "stopped 'practicing' your skills at fluent speech and it shows" (i.e., is lazy). Or better yet, can be likened to a smoker, an alcoholic, or a drug addict. Based on our brief interaction, this individual tells me "You know how to speak fluently, you just need to do it all the time." I hate to tell him this, but what I do is normal for me. "Maybe [I] just need more practice or commitment." You know, I work hard at talking - it's never been particularly easy for me. Most of my colleagues in stuttering haven't been terribly bothered by my fluency or lack thereof. In fact, even the majority of my colleagues who have little interest in (or understanding of) stuttering have never been all that troubled by my fluency. It was the fluency of the severe stutterers that bothered them.
I spent a good part of the summer of 2002 pondering the letter from this individual. Maybe he was right. Maybe I was in the wrong profession. Maybe I wasn't trying hard enough. Maybe I was a horrible role model, "dooming many young children to a lifetime of stuttering." I decided, after considerable soul-searching, that by any objective measure those things were untrue. After all, I'd never heard anything even close to what he had said to me, even from my worst enemies. I think most people, even those who know nothing about stuttering, would say that I've had a fairly successful life and that my stuttering plays a minor role in my life. In fact, over my career many of my colleagues have told me that I provide a very positive role model - someone who has succeeded in spite of stuttering. Someone who does the best he can. Someone who has not let stuttering hold him back.
What's troubling is this: I worry that there may be other professionals out there like this individual. This person may be the only (or the first) one to come out and say what was on his mind, but I think it is possible that others share his sentiments. I certainly hope not, because anyone who says that all stutterers are capable of "normal fluency" and that those who do not achieve it are simply not trying hard enough or are lazy, has simply not spent a whole lot of time listening to people who stutter. I've known hundreds of people who stutter - and many of my colleagues in stuttering have known a lot more than I have - and to suggest that those who continue to stutter, in spite of multiple therapies, are just lazy or just not trying hard enough is insulting beyond words and beyond belief. That's not to say that some people who stutter can't achieve high levels of fluency and perhaps "normal" fluency. But to suggest that allstutterers are capable of normal fluency flies in the face of reality. It's beyond my comprehension that someone who has spent his whole career working with people who stutter has not met even one person who could not be "normally fluent." But now he's met me. He doesn't get it. And I take things personally.
And one other thing really troubles me. If this individual's attitude could have such an effect on me, I wonder how his point of view affects those who feel guilty and ashamed about their stuttering? The "you are bad, you are lazy, you don't work hard enough, you could do it if you wanted to" message is about as damaging a one as I can imagine. In retrospect, I don't believe that the intent of the letter was to be hurtful - even though it was. It seems that he felt a need to educate me, but in doing so, he may have exposed a potentially hurtful attitude toward stuttering and people who stutter. It seems to me - as both a person who stutters and a speech-language pathologist - that we need to fight this attitude wherever we find it. We need to continue to educate people - even those in our own profession - to reduce discrimination and intolerance against people who stutter.
Gee, maybe this isn't so personal after all.
Hood, S. B. (Ed.) (1972). To the Stutterer. Memphis, TN: Speech Foundation of America.
Johnson, W. (1961). Stuttering and What You Can Do About It. Danville, IL: Interstate Printers and Publishers.
Quesal, B. (2001, Oct.) The Death of Fluency Disorders. International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference. http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/isad4/papers/quesal3.html
Yaruss, J.S., & Quesal, R.W. (2002). Academic and Clinical Education in Fluency Disorders: An Update. Journal of Fluency Disorders