As someone who stutters, hearing anyone claim stuttering is a sign of a lack of intelligence or that someone is not good enough is disheartening. I’ve stuttered since I was 7 and clearly remember when I developed it.
Going from fluent speech to disfluent speech was shocking and frustrating. I went to speech therapy as a child and again as an adult. I’ve learned tricks to control my stuttering, but depending on my mood — whether I’m tired, stressed or even excited — my stutter can be difficult to manage.
When President Donald Trump recently tweeted a manipulated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stammering through a news conference, I was disappointed. He used the flatly phony video to question her intelligence and allude to the idea she had “lost it.”
Last year the former president of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, then the Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, stuttered during a debate with his opponent, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Hogan then released a video called “7 Seconds of Silence.” In it he mocked Jealous, who was working through a “block,” the name for the pause in speech that is a hallmark of stuttering. Hogan went on to win re-election.
Popular culture weighs in negatively on stuttering as a source of ridicule and mockery, with the famous “Did I Stutter?” episode of “The Office” and the famous “Saturday Night Live” skit with the stuttering drill sergeant that prompts hilarious laughter.
Worldwide, more than 70 million people stutter, according to the Stuttering Foundation, including 3 million Americans. About 5% of all children go through a period of stuttering that lasts six months or more, according to the foundation, with more than 75% recovering from stuttering by late childhood. About 1% contend with stuttering as adults.
As an assistant professor in a college of nursing, I speak in public all day long. I lecture to 78 students every semester for two hours at a time per week. I’m also a family nurse practitioner, which means I have to talk to new patients every day. Public speaking is a huge part of my job, something that would have shocked my 7-year-old or 21-year-old self.
As a child, I was very outspoken, something that even a stutter could not stop. I ran for student council in grade school, performed in skits during Mass at my Catholic school and was Santa Claus during an all-female production of “The Night Before Christmas” because none of the boys would participate.
But as I grew older, and went through puberty, I learned my stutter was one of many things that caused me shame. In high school I stopped participating in extracurricular activities and avoided public speaking at all costs.
The one exception was at my senior retreat when I gave a speech about my stutter. It caused me such anxiety I told the retreat leader right before my time that I couldn’t do it.
Her response: “Being nervous means this is important to you.”
To my anti-authoritarian 17-year-old brain, this made no sense and made me angry at how unhelpful she was. I gave my speech mentally flipping her the bird in my head the whole time. Anger is also a great motivator.
After that speech in high school, many classmates told me they didn’t even realize I had a stutter.
I was reminded of this when I was confiding to a nursing classmate years later about how much my stutter bothered me. She had never noticed either.
As a student in my graduate nursing program, I realized how the fear of my stutter was negatively impacting me. I was avoiding using certain medical terminology for fear of tripping over the multisyllabic generic drug names or various surgical procedures. I did not want my stutter to impact my ability to care for my patients.
I realized it was a problem only to me, no one else. I was standing in my own way. I made the conscious decision never to allow my stutter to prevent me from reaching my goals.
Stutterers are often afraid to speak out for fear of looking stupid.
There is a quote often wrongly attributed to Abraham Lincoln, though its true origin isn’t known: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” When I first saw this quote, I thought it meant I would be a fool to allow people to hear me stutter. But I came to realize it was about the ideas we communicate, not how fluently we speak them.
I’m not going to let the fear of repetition and blocks prevent me from advocating for health care equity. I speak out because I’m passionate about improving access to health care, especially for low-income and homeless populations. Educating my patients and students is important to me. I speak out at conferences. I speak out in my lecture hall. I speak out in front of my colleagues.
Even if someone points out my stutter or ridicules it, that says more about his or her character than about mine.
It took me more than 10 years to realize this, but I finally understand what the retreat leader was trying to teach me that day in high school. I may be nervous before I speak, but that is because what I am saying is important to me.
Terry Gallagher is an assistant professor at Chicago’s Rush University College of Nursing.