I used to think the universe had a vendetta against me. While I had been born with the wonderful ability to write at a young age, I had been cursed with the inability to speak.
At some point during my stint in elementary school I discovered I had developed a recurring stutter. I honestly thought it was a phase that had to do with my overactive brain and my mouth just couldn’t keep up with it all. This eventually instilled in me a deep dislike for public speaking, the same way I disliked long division. I had hoped my stutter was a phase that would eventually go away.
But the phase didn’t phase-out.
The stigma of stuttering -- as described in a New York Times piece from earlier this month -- is literally a social battle of one against the world.
From my experience, on the hierarchy of disabilities, stuttering falls under the class of approved social mockery. It becomes the cheap shot in sitcoms and while movies like The King’s Speech made audiences swoon for the struggling, stuttering King, the rest of us who fumble over saying the “CH” in cheese pizza or the “MO” in Mocha at Starbucks get mercilessly snickered at.
In the New York Times piece, 16-year-old Philip Garber’s stutter allegedly resulted in his teacher asking him to hold his questions until after class so as to not waste the time of his fellow students.
In a follow-up New York Times piece, Garber’s teacher explained that her encounter with Garber was a misunderstanding, adding that she had no intention to “silence his voice” and that she had reached out to a speech therapist in regard to the situation.
Unfortunately, that misunderstanding hints at a much deeper and more complex issue involving the way classrooms are structured to work with students like Garber.
I was fortunate. From elementary to high school, I had the benefit of supportive speech therapists. But the nurturing atmosphere I experienced within the walls of speech room was not reflected inside the classroom, where the fear of getting mocked and laughed at eventually made me nearly mute. One girl in my middle school thought I didn’t speak English because I almost never spoke.
To counter my social disability, I ramped up my social activities. In high school I joined a Writers Club, Dance, and JROTC, where I eventually became a student leader and joined the Exhibition Drill Team. If it hadn’t been for forcing myself to engage in social activities outside of the classroom my fear of speech would have eaten me alive.
But it wasn’t until I started working that I really became more comfortable with my own voice. I learned to shrug off the snickers and find other ways to make my stutter less noticeable.
Then I chose to go into journalism as a career, and found myself overwhelmed with the fear all over again. I began to feel isolated and alone. I felt like no matter what I did, I would be defined by the smallest and most trivial part of myself, and not what I could actually do.
So, in a frustrated state I took to the only other place for socially awkward individuals: YouTube. I recorded a video called “Hi, I Stutter” and let all my pent up anxieties flow through the Internet.
And to my surprise, the little island I’d been alone on for so many years suddenly had a lot of visitors. While YouTube once again proved to be an arena for mean-spirited trolls spewing hurtful insults, I was shocked to find that I had an audience of people who had stutters way more advanced than my own and were thankful for my videos.
The community support I accidentally stumbled onto via YouTube was overwhelming and emotional. Someone commented that they had stopped ordering their favorite drink at the coffee shop because of how they feared someone might react to their stutter.
The very first video in the series, “Hi, I Stutter” currently has 9,152 views since I added it three years ago: a modest victory, in my opinion.
Yet even now as I enter graduate school to pursue a master's degree in film, the fear still thrives. Because I have zero time to write a five-page paper for my video editing class, I opted instead to do a five-minute oral report.
Needless to say, all I could do was imagine the myriad ways I could fumble. And of course, I fumbled and of course people giggled.
Sadly, in order to survive in this unsympathetic dog-eat-dog world, stutterers can’t wait for someone to open the door – you have to burn a hole in the wall. And whether that burnt wall happens through a slow or sudden process, until speech impediments are taken seriously and treated less like a joke, it will take motivated and curious people like Garber to fight the battle on their own terms.
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