Paul Engelman is a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The following article was published on the University student paper, The Daily Cardinal, spring 2002. (JAK)

D-D-Disability and Responsibility

by Paul Engelman

I write this as a person who st-st-st-stutters. I've had a stutter since I first began to talk. Although I have spent countless hours researching stuttering, I'm still not sure what to think about my speech disfluency. The cause of stuttering is unknown; no cure exists. The puzzle of stuttering has profoundly affected my life, and continues to impact me daily. Each day, often every sentence, I stutter.

I've heard lots of conversation about disabilities, and a lot about the hardships of living with a physical challenge (which may be expressed psychologically, as with mental illnesses). However, I haven't heard much discussion about the responsibility each person has with respect to disabilities. By responsibility I mean the awareness to take a step back and say - Why do I feel this way towards people with disabilities? With time, some people may realize that discomfort and lack of acceptance for disabilities, and the individuals who have them, is a result of one's inability to deal with his or her own unresolved issues.

From my stutter I know that many people have difficulty with silence, patience, atypical behavior, eye contact, and respect. Let's examine patience more closely. In our modern world, especially in America, people are impatient. They want things NOW. For example, people are often in such a hurry that they don't let their friends finish a thought. Do you notice how it's sometimes hard to finish a sentence without someone interrupting you? When I stutter, people take the NOW principle and project it onto me, often finishing my sentences or becoming irritated with my disfluent speech.

Some of my most difficult speaking situations are talking in class, ordering food, meeting new people, and saying something of significance that is usually said in a fluent manner. For example, no matter how funny the punch line of a joke, if I stutter on the punch line, it loses its power - and very few people, if any, laugh. Another challenging moment is talking with people that I don't know at bars. "You must be really drunk," people sometimes say (which is not the case, since most stutterers who are drunk talk fluently). Although I am self-confident, I've never become used to hearing this.

Luckily people are willing to listen to me talk about stuttering. However, many people are not as fortunate as I am to have a cooperative audience. Some disabilities are okay to have, while others are looked down upon. Stuttering tends to be one of the taboo disabilities, which is why the families of many stutterers rarely or never talk about stuttering. Further down the spectrum of what our society considers inappropriate disabilities are mental illnesses. In general, our society is a long way from beginning to accept and understand people with mental illnesses. Many people can't accept and come to terms with their own problems, let alone something as life-altering as a mental illness.

Disrespect for others exhibits a lack of self-respect. Some people have difficulty with my stutter, not because of who I am, but because of who they are. They project their own beliefs and expectations, their worldview, onto me. A lack of impatience towards a person who stutters, therefore, does not show that something is inherently wrong with stuttering, but that listeners project their own impatience with themselves onto the stutterer. The saying goes, "You can only hate what you hate about yourself."

The lack of respect, and consequently responsibility, to physically and mentally challenged individuals happens to a large extent because most people haven't given much time and energy into understanding the challenges of people who live with disabilities. Each person has the responsibility to examine who they are so that they don't project their own distastes onto the challenged, and in the process, fool themselves into thinking that something is wrong with disabilities and the individuals who have them.

Added with permission of the author
May 5, 2002