In Career Search, Sky's the Limit for People Who Stutter

By Ira Zimmerman

Recently on the Internet newsgroup, a worried 20-year-old college student and stutterer posted a note wondering what he was going to do with his life. Concerned that his occupation choices were somewhat limited because of his speech impediment, he was starting to worry about what sort of jobs he could do.

I certainly had the same concern some 35 years ago when I was starting to think about how I was going to earn a living with the severe stutter that I had. I had an interest in going into television broadcasting, but my parents thought that I couldn't handle the stress of that business. Being good in mathematics and statistics, I became a reliability engineer and was employed for approximately 30 years in the aerospace/defense industry.

When I was planning a career, I wish I had had the resources available today through the Internet and support organizations like the National Stuttering Project (NSP), where people who stutter can share their career experiences. Although there currently are no statistics on the career choices of people who stutter, NSP hopes to have some statistics on the occupations of its 1,500 members within six months.

A number of people who stutter and subscribe to the Internet e-mail list Stutt-l described their jobs and how their disfluency affected their careers. This article and other job related information will be posted on the Stuttering Home Page ( A chatroom at this site is planned that will allow teens to talk with adult stutterers about their careers.

It is imperative for speech-language pathologists who treat people who stutter to help them develop selfconfidence in their ability and not let their stuttering stop them from pursuing their career and life dreams.

While speaking at a convention of the National Council on Stuttering, Woody Starkweather, PhD, CCC-SLP, professor of communication disorders at Temple University, in Philadelphia, PA, noted that stutterers could do just about anything, although he allowed that it might not be a good idea for them to go into air traffic control. However, a woman raised her hand and announced that she was an air traffic controller who stuttered.

Some young people find role models in films and TV programs, but these are of little help for teens who stutter. A rare exception is James Earl Jones, who portrayed a Chicago policeman who stuttered in the film, A Family Thing.

Other famous stutterers who found they are fluent when they act are Bruce Willis and Eric Roberts. Highprofile stutterers in professional sports include Bo Jackson and Bob Love.

Stutterers have succeeded in a variety of careers. Among them are scientists Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton, politicians Winston Churchill and U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, writers Lewis Carroll and Henry James, and singers Mel Tillis and Carly Simon.

Others include General Electric chairman Dr. John Welch, Jr., broadcast journalist John Stossel, and Henry Rogers, a pioneer in public relations and advertising who used humor about his stuttering to put clients at ease.

While a speech-language pathologist can tell a teen who stutters that he or she can do anything, the impact of hearing the stories of adult stutterers is powerful.

Howard Heyman wanted to be a photographer but concentrated on darkroom work to avoid speaking situations. In 1974 he was hired to work parttime in the photo lab at Newsweek. Before starting at the magazine, he participated in intensive therapy for his stuttering that helped his self-confidence.

He eventually worked as a photographer for the magazine. As the years went on, his confidence and speech improved, and he was given more professional responsibilities. Today he is the lab chief for the Newsweek photo lab.

Like many stutterers who have had successful careers, Heyman said his employer is more interested in what he has to say and how well he does his job than in how well he speaks. That does not mean that improving communication skills was not helpful in securing promotions and increased professional responsibilities.

Dr. Lee Reeves has been a veterinarian for 23 years. His father helped him get a job in an animal hospital at the age of 13. Unable to say his name, he wrote it down on a piece of paper. While in veterinary school, he found excellent therapeutic help and went on to graduate and be successful in practice.

Dr. Reeves never stopped stuttering, although he describes it as "very mild" these days. Stuttering has been the biggest obstacle in his life, he acknowledged, but ."through facing the obstacle, more opportunities have been afforded me than I ever dreamed possible."

He has shared his experience with many other people who stutter and helped establish a support group for people who stutter in Dallas, Texas. In recognition of his achievements, he received an award from the National Council on Communicative Disorders last year.

Richard Schneider, PhD, conducts research on semiconductor/optoelectronics materials and devices at Hewlett-Packard Labs. He has had a successful career by anyone's standards, receiving awards for his inventions and having his work featured in Science magazine and others.

Dr. Schneider has presented at various conferences. Sometimes he stutters significantly, while at other times he speaks fluently. He feels that what he has to say is more important than how he says it. His stuttering did not impose any limitations in his career, he said, noting "the damage stuttering does to one's sense of self-worth is the real limitation."

A person who stutters does at times have to overcome the false perceptions of others.

A recent case of job discrimination involved a weather forecaster who stutters. The National Weather Service employee was denied a promotion to a position that required quick decisionmaking skills because his supervisor said he was "indecisive."

Dr. Starkweather, who is also a psychologist, served as an expert witness for the plaintiff. He noted that nonstutterers sometimes attribute personality characteristics to people who stutter that are based on their own feelings when they are hesitant, stumble in their speech, or feel nervous and uncertain. The plaintiff's attorney argued successfully that the supervisor had made such a mistake, concluding from her own speech pattern that the weatherman was uncertain in making decisions. The case was settled, and the man was promoted.

Salespeople and others who deal with the public report that their stuttering has helped them to be remembered by their customers. Doug Provencher is a copier service technician/team leader who makes regular service calls, helps technicians with any problems they have and has light management duties.

The job requires a lot of customer interaction, Provencher said, but "I have managed to do quite well even though I stutter." His customers might not remember his name, but they remember "that guy who stuttered" and fixed their copier better than others.

If he begins to feel depressed about his stuttering, he reminds himself that many fluent technicians with more experience than him have not received the same level of promotions, recognition, raises and respect that he has. "I must be doing something right," he said.

The stories continue. Susan Reed reports that her stuttering has never interfered with her ability to perform professionally as an addictions counselor for 25 years.

Jim McClure said his years of trying to hide his stuttering made him an expert at word substitution, leading to a career in professional writing and public relations. Speech therapy helped him overcome much of the fear and avoidance associated with stuttering, and today he welcomes challenging speaking situations, such as making cold telephone calls and giving presentations.

Ron Unizar, CPA, works in the accounting/finance department of Pixar Animation Studios, which did most of the animation work for the Walt Disney film Toy Story. Unizar, who works in a highly competitive environment, said his stuttering has given him "determination, resilience and grit."

  • About the author: Ira Zimmerman is a California State Registered Professional Engineer and frequent writer on the stuttering community. For more information about Stutt-l, contact by e-mail.
    reprinted from Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists, February 24, 1997, with permission