Stuttering as Honest Speech


The striking young woman is poised and confident on the stage. Her voice is strong as she describes her own stuttering in eloquent poetic language. Her stuttering is “…in breath calm and measured… stripping speech of nuance…” She addresses the trepidations of saying her own name: “I have let it sit heavy in my throat…. a tool of betrayal…” She reveals that “the stuttering is the most honest part of me…” and “…the only thing that never lies…”. To applause, she states “…when I stutter I am speaking my own language fluently…”.

It was a little more than a year ago that the video of Erin Schick’s spoken word poetry about her own stuttering went viral. She is also a co-founder of the website Did I stutter? (DIS). The other two founders, Joshua St. Pierre and Zach Richter, are students of Philosophy and Disability Studies respectively and also stutter.  DIS does not fashion itself a traditional self-help site. Their slogan is “it’s time to take back our speech” and the site introduces the phrase “Dysfluency-positive”. One can see how Erin Schick’s moving performance embodies a lot of the sentiments here.

Disability Studies

Disability studies emerged as an academic discipline in the 1980s. As the Ryerson University School of Disability Studies website describes it, the field is connected to the Disability rights movement that seeks to “shift the perspective away from a focus on individual deficiency and pathology, towards a focus on socially constructed barriers.”

In their own words, they seek to create a community of stutterers “outside of therapeutic systems”, meaning rather than an emphasis on overcoming or accepting stuttering, part of their mission is to “making the world more hospitable for people who speak differently.”

Stuttertalk Interviews

In 2014 Peter Reitzes of the podcast site Stuttertalk interviewed Erin, along with Josh, about her spoken word performance and her general experience with stuttering. In the interview, Honest Speech and Stuttering Hospitably, Peter discusses with Erin and Josh the DIS mission of providing “an alternative way of thinking about speech and communication disabilities.”

Peter asks Erin about the reactions to her performance, which are wide-ranging. The video has been uploaded to motivational sites, for example those encouraging diet and exercise, and she explains her mixed feelings of "media of disabled people used for inspiration for able-bodied people." To use it as an examples of 'overcoming flaws' "misses the point of her art that is not necessarily a flaw, and "perpetuates ablest attitudes."

They also discuss the differences between stuttering activism and self-help, and between their message and that of the National Stuttering Association (NSA) and other organizations. While not wanting to detract from the good that these organizations do for people, they advocate for a different approach.

Informed Consent

In a separate interview, Peter spoke to Josh and the other site's founder, Zach. Entitled Stuttering, Activism, Disability, Ableism and Informed ConsentZach described the political context of disability rights, the notion that stutterers are “disabled by society, not our bodies”. He also emphasizes the need for "informed consent" when it comes to the administering of speech therapy – at all ages, including young children. Peter objects to this notion. He makes the point that sometimes we compel children to do certain things for their own good – such as other types of medical interventions. Zach, in turn, objects to his characterization of stuttering as an "illness." Reitzes points out that they (Josh and Zach) do not have kids and that their opinions on the matter might change if they did. Their exchange becomes quite involved.

Zach's point is that children are taught from early age to "prioritize smooth speech, able bodiless" and that speech therapy effects how they see themselves and promotes the "Able-ist" attitudes that it places an onus on them to try not to stutter which challenges the listener to "listen harder". Reitzes pointed out that speech therapy today addresses self-esteem issues, and that when he had speech therapy in his youth the therapist told him "it was okay to stutter" and that he could be a superior communicator because of his stuttering, granting him much needed confidence. Zach said that people don't have to conform to ablest notions of the right way to be, and that he found identity and meaning in being a part of the stuttering community. Reitzes ended up extending the interview longer than normal to continue the discussion. You can hear the entire thing here.

 Whether you agree with them or not, these provocative discussions are intriguing for people interested in the issues surrounding stuttering. Currently Zach is a blogger and student and involved in the presence of disability within the competitive collegiate debate world. Erin continues her studies in social work and her writing and performance poetry. Josh lives in Alberta and is working towards his PHD in Philosophy.

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