Make Room For The Stuttering

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I’ll never forget the time at a Toastmasters meeting where we had a visiting “dignitary” with us to install new officers. It was the beginning of a new Toastmaster year and it is tradition in Toastmasters that a leader performs an induction ceremony.

I was so surprised when our Area Governor, whom I had not previously met, started speaking and I realized he stutters. In a way, I was kind of excited to realize there was another person in the room and in Toastmasters that stutters like I do.

I have often heard that people who stutter have a sense of radar when we hear other people who stutter. We can hear the repetitions, the breaks in speech, the blocks, all signs that a person stutters. I found myself hanging on this person’s every word as he completed the induction. He spoke slowly, deliberately, with repetitions and blocks.

After the meeting, I went up to introduce myself and congratulate him for a job well done. I also decided to disclose that I stuttered too, and that I was pleased to see a fellow stutterer do so well in Toastmasters.

Well, he became quite defensive and denied that he stutters. I remember this like it was yesterday. He got a little red in the face and adamantly let me know that he does not stutter. I felt foolish, as I had “outed” him when he clearly did not wish to be identified as a stutterer. I remember apologizing quietly and hurrying away, feeling embarrassed that I had embarrassed him.

Has this ever happened to you? How did you handle it?

Another time, I was at a networking meeting and heard a woman talking about her organization and clearly stuttering. I remember having self-talk with myself, again excited to hear another person who stutters in a professional environment and feeling conflicted if I should say anything to her.

The negative experience I had at the Toastmasters meeting still hung over me and I felt it was best that I not “out” another person. Disclosing that you are a person who stutters is a personal choice that needs to be respected, despite the overwhelming inside urge to yell, “hey, over here, me too. I stutter too.”

I remember being introduced at a Toastmaster meeting where I was to be a featured speaker. A fellow Toastmaster was responsible for introducing me and I thought he would share my usual bio which I had provided to the club, as we were all asked to. He ad-libbed a bit and added some extra things to his introduction of me.

He included that I was a proud stutterer and an inspiration to the club. I remember feeling embarrassed that he said that about me. There were people in the audience who were new and didn’t know me and now knew something about me that was very personal. It didn’t bother me that I stutter because I do and am open about it in Toastmasters. What bothered me was not being able to disclose it myself – I felt like I had been “outed.”

Now I knew what I felt like to be outed, even in a very well-intentioned manner and in a moment of pride. Ever since then, I have been very cautious about going up to anyone I hear stutter and saying anything, even the “I stutter too.”

It’s a slippery slope, outing someone as a stutterer or being outed yourself in a way you didn’t expect.

What do you think?

I just returned from the annual National Stuttering Association conference, held in Baltimore, Maryland this year. I spent a week at the conference site, catching up with friends for a few days before the actual conference started.

To say I had an outstanding experience would be an understatement. It is hard to put into words what it is like to be immersed in the stuttering community for 5+ days. It is a time filled with connection, bonding, laughter and tears. Even though it had been a year since I had seen most people, we picked up as if it had only been a week. That’s the beauty of community.

It is also the time each year where stuttering is normalized. It is freeing to stutter openly with hundreds of people who share and get the otherwise isolating experience.

I was very involved in first timer activities at this conference, hosting the first timer’s orientation workshop and welcome luncheon. It was great to meet new people just coming into the community who have not been in an environment where stuttering is the norm.

Everywhere I turned, I heard people stuttering. It is almost magical to hear the different types of stuttering and to see people thrive in a patient, non-judgemental environment.

One first timer I met in person after having “met” him online in Stutter Social hangouts was Shane. He kept looking around in wonder and exclaiming how unbelievable it was for him to be there and to hear so much stuttering. He kept saying “thank you” to us “old timers” he met, as he was so grateful for the experience to be in a normalized, inclusive stuttering environment.

The sense of community at a stuttering conference picks you up, holds you up and surrounds you with love and support. People meeting each other for the first time hugged in greeting, as if they were old friends. Sharing something as personal as stuttering is an almost instant bond. Lifelong friendships are made at conferences and people eagerly look forward to the next one before the current one is even finished.

On my last day, I became overwhelmed with emotion as I was saying goodbye to new and old friends. As I hugged people, tears flowed and I got choked with emotion so strong it surprised me.

I guess I figured after 10 years of attending stuttering conferences, saying goodbye would be easier. Not true. I felt sadness and a yearning to stay with the community rush over me like waves crashing against a shore. It will be another year before I see most of these people and get to experience the magic of the stuttering community again.

Now, I am transitioning back into a world where fluency is the norm and I am in the minority. But I take the love and support of my stuttering family with me and I will remember the power of support and community. I can’t help but remember – it flows through my veins.

I’m a huge fan of the Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black,” about the lives of women in prison. It is well written and has great character development. In season two, and now in season three, we learn more about major characters through flashbacks.

We learn why Norma is mute in season three. This is a spoiler alert – if you’re a fan and are not up to season 3, episode 7 yet, don’t read any further! :)

Episode 7 reveals in a flashback scene that the reason Norma doesn’t speak is that she is a stutterer. We see her attempt to speak in a scene from her youth to a cult leader. When she stutters, the leader tells her she doesn’t need to speak around him – that he hears her. We then understand that she chooses not to speak thereafter.

Several times in season 3 we also see Norma pull out a notepad and write the words that she chooses not to speak.

What do you think? Has anyone ever considered selective mutism as a way to deal with stuttering? Or using a notepad to write what you want to say?

I’ve read that the famous James Earl Jones chose to be mute when he was a child because he stuttered. I believe he didn’t speak for a number of years. It wasn’t until a sympathetic high school English teacher encouraged him to recite poetry that he began speaking again. James Earl Jones credits reciting poetry with helping him manage his stuttering.

I heard James Earl Jones perform at a local venue here in Albany, NY about 8 years ago. He read from his own poetry and wowed the audience with his booming voice and his heartfelt words. He stuttered openly several times during his reading. It was a wonderful night that was in sharp parallel to his choice to silence his own voice many years ago.

I’ve never considered choosing to be mute to manage my stuttering. I want to be heard too much. What about you?

Last week, I had the opportunity to emcee an awards event at my school. I call it an opportunity because I try to seize every chance I get to do public speaking. I enjoy it, while many of my fluent colleagues hate it and avoid it all costs. My co-workers were glad that I was willing to do it.

I have had years of experience with public speaking, through my association with Toastmasters and no longer dread it like I once did when I was really covert and afraid to stutter openly. But I still get a little anxious, like anyone would. My adrenaline gets flowing because like anyone, I want to do the best that I can at events like these.

As a stutterer, my biggest challenge is reading names aloud and introducing people. That was to be my primary role as emcee at the awards event – introducing each person and keeping the ceremony moving and flowing.

I was anxious about saying people’s names – as I knew I would stutter on them. And stutter I did. Some with light, easy repetitions, a couple with blocks.

No one seemed to care, as the event was about celebrating success and I was just a cog in the wheel to make sure everything went smoothly. The people whose names I was calling were getting certificates of appreciation – that’s what they focused on.

But it bothered me. It always does when it comes to names. I feel getting a person’s name right is important. Our name is our identity and it’s important. I feel bad when I stutter on a name and it “doesn’t come out right.” I feel like pronouncing someone’s name correctly is a show of respect.

I always worry about this – perhaps needlessly, as like I said, no one seemed to be bothered by it except me. It’s important to me that people get my name right, so I think I should get their’s right too.

What about you? Do you find it difficult with people’s names? Just your own name? Do you place importance on getting someone’s name right?

Another TV reality show features someone who stutters, trying to make it big because of, or in spite of, their stuttering.

In the show, America’s Got Talent, we have a young man who stutters and is a comedian. His story is interesting because he says he stutters due to a sports injury. He explains it in the clip below.

Drew Lynch is a comedian and he’s trying to get people to laugh, but I would have liked to see some material that wasn’t encouraging laughing at just stuttering. All of his jokes were about stuttering.

What do you think?

Earlier in the week, I did a presentation on stuttering to high school seniors who are taking a scientifc research biology class. In addition to talking about stuttering in general and my own experiences, I also touched on genetics and the neurological basis of stuttering.

The students were wonderful and asked so many smart and thoughtful questions. Truth be told, I was a little intimidated by them because they are so smart and all biological science enthusiasts. But they made me feel so comfortable and welcome, our time together just flew by.

Below are some comments from the students, which their teacher emailed to me. Feedback is so important. It helps us determine if we met our objective and did a good job. I felt I had and these comments made me feel so good!

Ms. Mertz

Your presentation was such an inspiration. I never fully recognized the emotional trauma that can accompany a stutter. It takes a strong person to be able to accept that and continue living their life. The video you showed us was especially moving, proving that a stutter can’t stop someone from living their dream.

Thanks so much for taking your time to speak with us,

Dear Pam,

I appreciated you coming to speak with us about your stuttering. You showed a lot of confidence when giving your presentation and did a very good job explaining the struggle you went through as a child. It was nice to hear about all of the programs that are available now a days to help people with stuttering issues get to know people that have the same disability. I was unaware that such programs existed.

Dear Ms. Mertz,

Thank you for coming in and speaking with our class. Your presentation was very interesting and informing. Before your presentation, I had never thought about the physiological affects stuttering could have on a person. After meeting with you  I now have a better understanding of the struggles a person who stutters and will be more open-minded in the future.

Dear Ms. Mertz,

Thank you so much for speaking with our class, it was so inspiring to see how comfortable and confident you were, I also thought it was so interesting how rare stuttering is in women. I never knew that! Thanks Again!

Dear Ms. Mertz.

Thank you so much for stepping out of your comfort zone to tell us about the struggles you, and others who stutter, have dealt with throughout your lives. I had no idea that stutters were cause by genetic and neurological factors. I always thought they were caused by stress or anxiety. Thank you so much for enlightening me and promoting a better understanding of those who stutter.

Dear Ms. Mertz,

I’d like to thank you for coming and speaking to our class. I understand how it must have felt for you to have done that, but I want you to know that we all benefited from your talk. By you putting yourself in that situation for us, we all have a better understanding of both sides of your iceberg. I hope you continue to do talks like the one you gave us, as to help remove some of the stigma that surrounds your disability.

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I had this article published today in my local newspaper. The commentary editor told me they don’t usually take “issue” pieces because it might sound like a PSA (Public Service Announcement.)

But he told me it was well written, interesting and effective and they would publish it as is, this week for National Stuttering Awareness Week.


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© Pamela A Mertz and Make Room For The Stuttering, 2009 - 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Pamela A Mertz and Make Room For The Stuttering with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Same protection applies to the podcasts linked to this blog, "Women Who Stutter: Our Stories" and "He Stutters: She Asks Him." Please give credit to owner/author Pamela A Mertz 2015.
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