Make Room For The Stuttering

Encountering Someone Different

Posted on: June 19, 2009

I am very fortunate. I bet most of you reading this are too. I wake up every day, take care of my own needs, and drive myself to a job that pays me for the work that I do. There are tens of thousands of people that cannot do this, which many of us may have taken for granted. Not so much now with hard economic times and fewer jobs. These people of all ages rely on other people to provide the supports they need to get through every day. These are the people in our communities with disabilities.

This Wednesday night, I was installed as a member of the Board of Directors of an agency that supports developmentally disabled people. I accepted this nomination for a two year term. I am doing this because I can. I have a soft spot for people with different abilities. I have served for the last year as a member of the same agency’s Guardianship Committee. I help observe the rights of  people who can’t make medical or end-of-life decisions. We also work to ensure they are not taken advantage of, or denied care, just because they are disabled.

So why am I writing about this? It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with stuttering, does it? But if you continue reading, you’ll see a connection.

I just received my issue of inSIGHT, a newsletter that provides resources for families affected by many developmental disorders. One article caught my eye. It is titled “Encountering Someone Different”, and is written by a man who is a psychologist, a wheelchair user and grandfather of an 8 year old autistic boy. He writes about people talking over him, dismissing him, refusing to make eye contact, etc., because he is different. He discusses how the average person who encounters someone with a disfigured body or acting in a way that doesn’t meet the expected norm, feels distress.

“It happens so fast that we don’t even know what we are feeling. The first instinct is to find a way to diminish the stress. Sometimes, the reaction to the distress takes the form of  harsh judgement. This may include critical looks or patronizing comments. There is a price that is paid ,and not just for the person who is judged or ignored. Stress is a symptom – diminishing it by judging, criticizing or ignoring others is merely a form of symptom relief, like having a stiff drink.” (Daniel Gottlieb, Ph.D. 2008) He says, “its stressful facing someone different.” Gottlieb shares this story about his 8 year old grandson.

Sam is generally doing well in first grade but struggles in some areas. Recently he had class work that he didn’t understand. Embarrassed by his difficulty, he took his book home without asking his teacher. When he spoke to his mom, not only was he embarrassed about not understanding the homework, he also felt guilty about taking the book home.

In order to assuage his guilt, Sam’s mom explained: “Sam, they have a special piece of paper at school that says when you have trouble with your work, you can ask the teacher and she will give you extra help. And if you still have trouble, she will call me and I will also help you. But Sam didn’t feel better. He began to cry: ‘Mommy, I don’t want a special piece of paper.’

Sam speaks for most everyone who is “different”. None of us really wants that special piece of paper.

This piece really resonated with me. It touched me, in so many ways. I have heard it said that people who stutter are more sensitive to people with other disabilities. Some people who stutter can be disabled by their stutter. No matter the severity, all of us who stutter may have felt different, judged, ignored, patronized, inferior, disrespected, isolated.

When I spend time with people who have disabilities and their family members, I feel blessed to be able to make an impact. I share my ideas  and make suggestions, listen and ask questions. No one really cares if I stutter. In the scheme of  things, it doesn’t matter. Our communities have to be inclusive, of everyone, even if they look, act or sound different.

So what can we do when we feel distressed when we encounter someone who is different? Allow ourselves to feel the stressful feelings without trying to avoid them. (Hm, like stuttering!) Make eye contact, whether the person has Down Syndrome or fails to initiate speech. The grandfather of the 8 year old Sam says, “I have always believed that if you look in someones eyes, you  can find their humanity – and in that process, you can learn more about your own.”

The next time you encounter someone different, look in their eyes. And hope that someone looks you directly in the eye. We are different. We are alike. We are human.

Copyright © 2009

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5 Responses to "Encountering Someone Different"

This story reminds me why I am an SLP and encourages me to continue following along the path that has been given me. Thank you again Pam for your commitment to yours.

Pam, great stuff. I am a fan of Dan Gottlieb. I grew up outside of Philly, and they (like we have in Albany) have a great NPR station. Terry Gross, one of the best interviewers alive, IMHO, does “Fresh Air” from Philly, and Dan Gottlieb hosts a weekly radio show, “voices in the family.” It’s a great show, and I have listened to it a few times via itunes this year. He has often talked about his grandson, as well as his own physical challenges. Your page is a great read. Keep blogging! I’ll call you today. Joe

Thanks Marc and Joe,

Really awesome that SLP’s can enjoy my musings! It is a journey, and life demands that we share that journey.

Joe, I would love to hear one of Dan’s shows. His article was just great. Maybe I can find the link to his radio show, I bet its somewhere on the internet!

Awesome stuff Pam. You are such an insipiration to me, I cannot say that enough.

Keep blogging, you are touching lives.

the main comment that I wanted to make about your blog was to compliment you on the high quality of your posts. You write extremely well and you address such interesting topics and raise some really thought-provoking questions. I get so much from reading your blog. Sometimes I read a post and then I find myself thinking about it for ages afterwards. I just think that you are brilliant to share your world-view in such an insightful way. In my opinion, it’s both generous and extremely courageous of you to do so.

Anyway, I just want you to know that I check out your blog every chance I get. There are some posts which you write that I think are absolutely superb – like “Encountering Someone Different’ and ‘On Community’.

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© Pamela A Mertz and Make Room For The Stuttering, 2009 - 2017. 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 2017.