Being Your Own Best Advocate
by William D. Parry, Esq., CCC-SLP
A licensed speech-language pathologist and trial lawyer. Author of Understanding & Controlling Stuttering: A Comprehensive New Approach Based on the Valsalva Hypothesis. Former Chair, National Stuttering Association Advocacy Committee
This article is based on a pamphlet previously published by the National Stuttering Project (now the National Stuttering Association) while Bill Parry was a member of its Board of Directors and Chair of its Advocacy Committee.)
Of the many obstacles faced by people who stutter, perhaps the most devastating is discrimination in employment and educational opportunities. As an NSP chapter leader and as current chair of the NSP's Advocacy Committee, I have heard from stutterers who try to hide their stuttering on the job for fear of being fired, who suffer harassment or unfavorable evaluations by intolerant supervisors, and who have been denied promotions to supervisory positions or jobs that involve speaking or dealing with the public.
I personally felt the sting of employment discrimination early in my legal career, when I was openly rejected by firms because of my stuttering, despite my academic qualifications. At the recent NSP convention in Atlanta, I heard similar stories, including that of a speech- language pathology student who was told by his Speech Department that he could not graduate unless he stopped stuttering.
I am convinced that discrimination against stutterers is at least as pervasive as racial or sexual discrimination. In some ways it is even more insidious, because: (1) stutterers are a much smaller minority with less political clout; and (2) many people feel justified in assuming that stuttering is a legitimate job disqualification or a sign of incompetence.
Research has confirmed that persons who stutter are subject to negative stereotypes, which have significantly harmed their employment and promotion opportunities. These stereotypes include the widely accepted impression that stutterers are nervous, shy, quiet, self-conscious, withdrawn, tense, anxious, fearful, reticent, and guarded. For example, one NSP member was denied a promotion by the U.S. Weather Service because his supervisor incorrectly assumed, on the basis of his stuttering, that he lacked the ability "to make rapid fire judgments, think quickly and demonstrate leadership ability."
These negative attitudes have had a significant adverse effect in terms of employment. A 1997 study reported high unemployment for persons who stutter, difficulty in gaining promotions, and a feeling of being discriminated against because of their stuttering. Other studies in 1983 showed that both employers and vocational rehabilitation counselors perceived stuttering to be a vocationally disabling disorder. In a 1991 study, employers reported that, while stuttering does not hinder a person's performance, it does inhibit his or her ability to gain employment or a promotion.
Studies have shown that these negative views of persons who stutter are shared by almost all groups studied - students, teachers, employers, parents, even speech-language pathologists. Even worse, studies show that persons who stutter also believe these stereotypes and tend to behave accordingly. It seems that people who stutter are not only victims of the stereotype, but they themselves may help to perpetuate it. Therefore, we must begin by correcting our own attitudes, if we are to succeed in dispelling the prejudices of others.
Ironically, the negative image of stutterers may be made even worse by our attempts to avoid or to disguise our stuttering. For example, rather than acknowledging a block, we might pretend that we have forgotten the word, can't decide what to say, or don't know the answer to a question. Or we might engage in inappropriate word substitutions or circumlocutions. While we may think we have fooled people by doing this, we really haven't. We have merely confirmed the stereotype that stutterers are hesitant, indecisive, or stupid.
In terms of listener reaction, research has shown that trying to hide our stuttering is actually the worst thing we can do. Studies have shown that listeners have a much more favorable impression of stutters who acknowledge their stuttering than of stutters who do not. Listeners also have a more favorable reaction to actual stuttering blocks, repetitions, and prolongations than to the kind of interjections (um's and ah's, etc.) that we often use when we try to avoid stuttering.
Therefore, if we are to break the negative stereotypes, we must accept and acknowledge our stuttering. We must come "out of the closet" and let employers and others know that stuttering is no stigma and nothing to be ashamed of. For example, we should freely discuss our involvement with the NSP and wear our NSP buttons with pride. If we act as if we are ashamed of ourselves and our stuttering, how can we expect others to treat us with respect?
Educating the Public
Despite two decades of publicity about stuttering's possible neurological and hereditary factors, the popular idea that stuttering is caused by "nervousness" continues to persist. Studies indicate that this is due to people's tendency to equate stuttering with their own moments of disfluency - which may have been prompted by nervousness, fear, uncertainty, or emotional conflict. They assume that the stutterer is experiencing similar feelings - only more so. Consequently, they may view stutterers as being nervous, slow, ineffectual, indecisive, or mentally unstable.
We must be ready to disabuse people of these harmful and incorrect assumptions by explaining stuttering in terms that they can understand and relate to. It might be helpful to formulate a brief explanation of stuttering in advance. Ideally, such an explanation should be simple enough to fit into a 15-second sound bite, yet concrete enough for people to conceptualize and remember. Of necessity, it cannot be as complete or sophisticated as speech professionals would like or satisfy all of their competing theories. However, it should offer a credible alternative to displace the shame, stigma, and negative stereotypes associated with stuttering.
While emphasizing that stuttering involves neurological factors, rather than being caused by "nervousness" or emotional problems, we must also be careful not to create the negative impression that stutterers are seriously brain-damaged or otherwise defective. Instead, we should eliminate the shame and stigma of stuttering by emphasizing the stutterer's basic normality.
I personally have had success in explaining stuttering to people by telling them that it is not caused by nervousness, but that it might involve, among other things, "a neurological confusion between two basically normal bodily functions - speech and the Valsalva mechanism." I explain that when I feel that speaking may be difficult, I tend to activate the Valsalva mechanism - which is a bodily mechanism that everybody normally uses to help them to exert effort or to force things out of the body, but which causes a blockage of speech. I might then have them perform a simple exercise which activates the Valsalva mechanism, causing them to personally experience physical blockage in the mouth or larynx - similar to what may happen during a stuttering block. (For a further description, see my article, The Valsalva Mechanism: A Key to Understanding and Controlling Stuttering, or my book, Understanding and Controlling Stuttering, available from the NSP.) While this explanation mentions only one of many possible factors involved in stuttering, it has the advantage of focusing on a normal bodily function that people can personally experience and remember. It also allows for a discussion of stuttering in terms that are free of any possible shame or stigma.
Standing Up for Our Rights
Our right to equal opportunity should not be conditioned upon our fluency. We should have the right to accept our stuttering and to insist that employers judge us solely upon our ability to perform the essential requirements of the job in question.
We should not allow employers to put undue emphasis on "communication skills" as a pretext for discriminating against stuttering. Employers must learn that (except perhaps in the most severe cases) stuttering need not interfere with effective communication! The greatest obstacle to communication comes when we feel compelled to hide our stuttering out of fear of reprisal. For employers to demand fluency as the price of one's job only creates a vicious spiral of stress and anxiety that makes stuttering worse.
When all else fails, we must be ready to use legal remedies to challenge acts of discrimination. A number or state and federal statues now outlaw discrimination against persons with handicaps or disabilities, which may offer protections to persons who stutter. Most recently, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA") banned discrimination "against qualified individuals because of a disability, in regard to job application procedures, hiring, advancement, discharge, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." Each statute has its own specific terms, applicability, and procedures, which must be followed precisely.
Unfortunately, discrimination cases are usually very hard to win, even for experienced attorneys, so they should not be undertaken haphazardly. Although a number of stuttering discrimination cases have been successfully settled before trial, the question of whether stuttering is legally a "disability" entitled to protection is still undecided by the courts. Our greatest fear is that poorly prepared cases will result in unfavorable judicial opinions, which will then be followed by courts in other cases and seriously damage the rights of all persons who stutter.
Therefore, it is important that the NSP's Advocacy Committee be notified of all stuttering discrimination cases, as soon as they are brought or contemplated, so that we can provide whatever advice and assistance might be appropriate.
Because stuttering is such a complex and misunderstood disorder, stuttering discriminations cases must be carefully planned and prepared in order to avoid potential disaster. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the popular prejudices and misconceptions about stuttering to become enshrined as judicial precedent, leaving millions of persons who stutter without legal protection.
A licensed speech-language pathologist and trial lawyer, offering Valsalva Stuttering Therapy and counseling in person in Philadelphia and over the Internet via webcam (subject to applicable law).
Office: 1608 Walnut Street, Suite 900, Philadelphia, PA 19103
Valsalva Stuttering Therapy is a new approach to improving fluency by controlling the physiological mechanism that may be causing stuttering blocks. For further information on Valsalva Stuttering Therapy, visit Stuttering Therapy and Counseling at www.stutteringtherapist.com.
Last revised: 5/1/13