Make Room For The Stuttering

I recently got an email from someone wondering if a list exists of workplaces that are “stutter friendly.” Those are my choice of words. The person emailing me described such a workplace as “not scared” to hire someone who stutters and that wouldn’t look down negatively on the stuttering.

I am not aware of such a list but one might readily exist that we could generate just by asking people who stutter where they work. People who stutter who are employed are already in workplaces that have shown that they are not scared of stuttering and value the person’s skills and contributions more than they worry about stuttering.

The person who reached out indicated that she has been looking for work for over two years and can’t get past the interview phase. She believes it’s because of her stuttering. I pondered how to reply to her. She is an IT Engineer so definitely has skills and abilities that make her employable.

I have no list of “stutter friendly” workplaces that I can just forward her. I wanted to be encouraging and helpful so I asked her where she lives and what types of jobs she’s been applying to. I’m hoping she’ll reply back and maybe I will know someone in her field and in her geographic area that might be able to point her to a good job lead with an employer who values both skills and diversity.

It would be really cool if the National Stuttering Association (NSA) could develop a network of employers in the United States who are “stutter friendly” for just these kinds of situations. In my work as a member of the Board of the NSA, I am leading an initiative on employment advocacy which focuses on helping people who stutter manage communication either during job search or after getting the job.

We’re doing some exciting things like offering mock interviews, one-on-one consultations to discuss workplace stuttering and we’re sponsoring a series of webinars on stuttering more successfully at work.

A long-term vision of mine includes having an Employer Stuttering Network where employers would “sign on” with the NSA as “stutter friendly” workplaces. I have thought about this since before I officially took my current role on the NSA Board. I think it can happen, but people would need to be willing to acknowledge that they stutter and share where they work. People who stutter obviously make great employees.

I am going to follow-up with this person who emailed me and try to find a workplace or two in her area that won’t be “scared” to talk to someone who stutters.

Wish me luck!

 

 

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Yesterday I had an appointment with a health care provider I’ve seen for over 3 years. I see him once every other month for a quick maintenance visit. At this visit, we exchanged small talk which included him asking me about my weekend.

I shared with him that I’d been in Chicago for a long weekend to attend a Board meeting of the National Stuttering Association. He asked if I had ever had a problem with stuttering and I told him that I stutter, and that I was sure I had at least once shared that with him. He said he’s never noticed.

He asked me a little about my experience on the Board and what ways I contribute to the organization. As I was talking, he acknowledged that he indeed heard me occasionally stutter and found it interesting that he never really heard it before. I thought to myself that probably that was because he usually does most of the talking and our visits are always really brief.

He went on to say that he has a large family and eight males in the family stutter. He wondered if there was a genetic link. I told him yes, that there is recent and current research that supports a definite genetic influence and that a NIH researcher has even identified three genes for stuttering.

He was fascinated and I took the opportunity to educate a bit more. I shared that the male to female ratio in stuttering is 4:1 male and that most children often stutter during language development but that about 80% recover naturally and that early intervention was key for children who stutter for more than six months.

He asked a few more questions and then we got to the business at hand! It was the longest conversation we’ve had outside the confines of the reason I was there. I was pleased that he shared his family history with stuttering and that we made a little connection about it. We concluded our visit with comments about how it was nice to have had that chat and interesting how stuttering just came up casually after making small talk for a moment.

I believe I educated this doctor while at the same time I shared something personally important to me. Educating and talking about stuttering with the medical community in a positive and non-shameful way is so important. I’m glad I took the opportunity that was presented to me. And I’m glad I was able to answer some questions for him as it was clear that he was lacking education about stuttering despite having so many family members that stutter.

I am re-purposing this post that I wrote about 6 years ago, about watching yourself stutter in a mirror. I have always had a very hard time with this. I was reminded of this when I saw a friend post about looking at her stuttering as an mp3 file and seeing the breaks and “dead air” in the audio stream.

Several years ago, I facilitated a story-telling circle with a very supportive audience. These were people who understand the value of sharing our stories, as any one story has the potential to trigger an impact on someone else. So this group were wonderful listeners. I felt very honored sharing some of my stuttering stories with them.

It was very empowering for me to tell my stories, especially to an audience of people who do not stutter. And because it was story telling, which is very different from giving a speech, I did not use notes. So I wasn’t quite sure how it would unfold, as I planned to just tell from the heart.

I knew it would be special, so I had a friend record the three stories I told. I wanted to have a record of what I told. I spent a lot of time editing the video clips, as I planned to share my message with others.

It was very hard watching the videos of myself  stuttering. It is one thing to hear myself stutter, like when I do the podcasts or even just hear myself talking to others. But to “see my stuttering”, it kind of brought tears to my eyes the first time. I saw how deliberate I was, I saw what my pauses looked like, I saw what multiple-repetitions looked like. A couple of times, I saw one eye squeeze closed when I blocked. And I saw some physical tension.

Watching myself tell my stories and stutter very openly with people I did not know well was very emotional and poignant for me. I wondered as I watched (the video) what the listeners thought as they watched me.

It was not easy watching the first time. But I did watch several more times and it was easier. I caught the point where I almost choked up, but didn’t. And I realized that sometimes I stutter a lot, and sometimes hardly at all.

I don’t think I could ever purposely practice stuttering in front of a mirror. It would be contrived, not real. It would not help me be anymore comfortable stuttering publicly.

It takes a lot of guts to be who you are in the many different areas of our lives. And to look back on those moments and realize just that. Watching myself be myself in front of others can’t be replicated in private with a mirror.

Real life needs us to be ready to be ourselves when it counts. When sharing our gift of self can make a big difference.

As I have shared over the years, a big part of my job is going around to different schools and giving presentations to high school school students. I work as a recruiter in a career and technical high school and it’s my job to inform 10th graders about training options they have for their last two years of high school. Students can choose to enroll in one of our programs and attend for a half day, while remaining at their own school for the other half of the day.

It’s a great opportunity for high school students. They can take one of our programs for two years and leave with licenses or industry certifications that will enable them to find jobs right out of high school or be more prepared for college.

I love my job. I am out and about a lot meeting with different kids all of the time and giving information that, to some, may be life changing. Many kids struggle with traditional high school so having an opportunity to participate in hands-on training very often is a game changer. Research shows that kids who graduate from career and technical programs also graduate from high school, often at a higher graduation rate than traditional schools.

So I feel very blessed to have this kind of job. But it can be daunting. I am making the same presentation about 60 times over the course of two months. I have it memorized. But knowing and being comfortable with my material does not make it any easier when I find I am stuttering a lot. Which occurs a lot. I am talking about programs with specific course names that I can’t change for something easier to say.

I almost always stutter on the word “Cosmetology.” It comes out “cos-cos-cos-ma-ma-ma-tology.” Sometimes I get weird looks, sometimes kids will snicker or full out laugh.

I also almost always stutter on the words “Construction” and “Culinary Arts.” Those hard “C” sounds get me every time. I’ve been asked why don’t I just advertise to the students that I stutter so I feel more comfortable and to lessen the uncomfortable reactions I get.

I think about long and hard before each school’s slate of presentations. I am not there to talk about stuttering. I am there to talk about the really cool technical training programs we offer. I don’t want to talk about something that I’m not supposed to talk about during these times, even though I could easily talk about stuttering for hours. No, I usually don’t mention stuttering and just “power through” the stuttering moments or blocks. I try not to let it show when I’m bothered by kid’s reactions to my stuttering. I do my best to remain emotionless and neutral.

Maybe this is not the best strategy to take when doing so many presentations. But this is the way I’ve dealt with it for years now, and suddenly advertising and then having to maybe explain myself feels uncomfortable to me.

So, I am sticking with the way I’ve done it. I have 7 more presentations scheduled for this week and then I’ll be done for this school year. I trust I’ll get through them like I have all the others. And if I don’t, and someone says something that makes me really uncomfortable, maybe, just maybe, I’ll find myself being upfront and sharing this part of myself with kids who will most likely be OK with it.

 

 

 

Last Friday I spoke to high school students about stuttering. These students are in an accelerated science class during their senior year. They are studying methods of scientific research and for their neuroscience unit, the teacher invited me in to talk about stuttering. I talked a little about the neurology and genetics of stuttering and a lot about the emotional complexities of a communication disorder.

It was such a pleasure to present to these students. They had so many questions and were truly interested and engaged with what I shared. I didn’t get through half of the formal presentation I had prepared as I just decided to go with the flow of the student’s questions.

Yesterday, the teacher emailed me thanking me again for coming in and included thank you notes from the students. I was touched and overwhelmed with what they had to say. Here’s a few of the messages from the students.

Ms. Pam Mertz, On behalf of the New Visions Scientific Research Program of 2018 I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your morning to come and teach our class about stuttering. It was very beneficial for us all to learn about this speech disorder, as it is one that is often not taught about. It was very interesting to learn about the association between dopamine and blood flow levels in the brain and stuttering.

Ms. Pam Mertz, thank you so much for meeting with us on Friday and introducing us to just a little snapshot of what stuttering is and how you deal with it in your life. I really appreciate that you were comfortable enough to embrace your stutter with us and that you let your powerful and comforting voice show through. I was very interested in how you explained how stuttering does not affect those when singing because a different side of the brain is used. I really do thank you for meeting with us and I hope that we can meet with you again later on this year.

For someone that stutters, it must be pretty terrifying to have a job that has you speak in front of crowds so often. To be able to overcome any fear and do your job is very inspiring, and for you to let down your guard and openly stutter in front of us is very kind. Thanks again for coming and telling the new Visions Class about your lifelong experience with stuttering. I thought the most interesting part was how you met another student that was the only stutterer in her school, and were able to connect to based on shared experiences.

Thank you Pam for taking the time out of your day to come and talk with us and teach us about stuttering. I really enjoyed hearing about how you have overcome your stutter and learned to deal with it. It is very inspiring!! I did not know much about stuttering and I didn’t know how much of a mental toll having a stutter had on a person. Thank you so much Pam!!

Thank you so much for coming in and talking to us about a topic that doesn’t get enough recognition in this world. I really enjoyed hearing your story and the view on the subject from someone who experiences stuttering everyday of their life. You are very brave for stuttering freely and being able to encourage others to follow in your footsteps. Keep moving forward and I hope the world begins to realize how important this is. I found it really interesting how much of a psychological impact it has on a person and maybe the reason is because they don’t know that they have a huge group of people like you that are ready to support them. Thank you again so much for coming in and teaching us, it was one of the most interesting rotations of the year so far.

Pam, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak to us about something that’s very personal to you.  I think that it’s great that you made a platform for yourself to speak on stuttering and make the impact that you do on others.  When you explained the story about the little girl Kira when you spoke at the one middle school, it shows how much what you’re doing matters.  Learning about how certain things can aggravate or increase one’s stuttering was quite interesting and important knowledge. Thank you again for talking to us I really appreciated it!

Ms. Mertz, Thank you for giving of your time to meet with us on Friday.  It was very interesting to hear a first hand account of what it is like to live with stuttering.  I realized how uneducated about stuttering I was after hearing your presentation.  I think so often people are uneducated about it and do not see it as the real problem that it is.  Stuttering in itself is a large problem but it causes many other issues like depression because of the stigma surrounding it.  It is important that people are educated about it and thank you for educating our class on it.

 

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be interviewed recently by a freelance journalist in the Albany, NY area. He was looking to do a piece on stuttering and wanted to both write an article and produce a podcast.

I got to give a shout out to the National Stuttering Association and shamelessly plug my own work here on this blog. I am very happy with how it turned out, even the picture. Please take a listen when you get a chance – it’s not too long and you can see how I responded “off the cuff” as the interviewer had not sent me the questions in advance!

stuttering presentation NovemberI had the opportunity earlier in the month to talk to middle school kids about stuttering. I gave three presentations, one each to the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. There was about 100 kids in each group. This is a piece the school did about the presentations and put on their website.

It went great. I talked about what stuttering is and isn’t, discussed myths about stuttering and how to interact with someone who stutters. I had several interactive activities for the kids to participate in, so they could “try on” stuttering and so that I could normalize it for them.

I had several large grapefruits and asked a few students to come up to the front of the room and try to hide them somewhere on their person where no one would be able to see them. They had fun trying to conceal a big grapefruit. I explained that it was like when I tried to hide my stuttering – as much as I tried, it still showed.

I also had Chinese Finger Traps for the kids to play with and experiment with getting stuck. I explained how it feels to get stuck when you stutter and get a block.

And I had the students experiment with a quick moment of voluntary stuttering. There were lots of reactions to this. Many felt uncomfortable, awkward, aggravated, found it hard to do. A teacher in the audience shared that she felt many students didn’t want to do it as it might seem disrespectful to someone who really stutters.

The best part of the morning was when a SLP came up to me and said that there was a 6th grader who stutters and she really wanted to come up and meet me and ask some questions. Keira came up after the presentation, introduced herself, stuttered openly and asked several very insightful questions.

She told me I was the first person she had ever met that also stuttered. I could tell it was a big deal for her to have come up to me. I was so glad she did. Hopefully, the experience reassured her that stuttering is not the end of the world and it’s just another way of talking like I had mentioned in the presentation.

Anytime we can, people who stutter should share our experiences, especially to young people. It teaches them about compassion, tolerance and diversity and that’s what makes the world go ’round.

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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.
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