The One Thing Every Person Who Stutters Needs to Understand

I forget how old I was, maybe in high school or just before. I had either failed another math test or barely passed one by the skin of my teeth. Math was the bane of my existence. My mother’s son. She shook her head when she saw the grade but understood. She didn’t have a head for figures either.

My father did. He asked me what the problem was, disappointment in his voice. I shrugged and sulked. We talked some more, me mumbling answers, looking at the floor, shuffling my feet. The pity party was in full effect. Eventually he got tired of it.

“Look,” he finally said, thrusting the test back at me. “You need to understand something” nobody is going to feel sorry for you.”

And then he walked away.

I remember standing there confused, cursing him out in my head.

Doesn’t he get it? I’m just not good at math.

. . .

A few years ago I volunteered to speak at a stuttering conference here in Washington. The panel discussion I was scheduled to participate in was akin to Career Day at school. Panelists from different professions would get up in front of a crowd and talk about what they did for a living and how stuttering affected their paths. I was the token lawyer.

On the day of the conference, I arrived at the venue early and met my panel’s MC, a woman who would also serve as a panelist. She showed me where we’d be and walked me through the order of ceremony. She was warm and engaging in a way that made it clear to me that she’d be great on the mic. I don’t remember her stuttering at all during our conversation. I must not have either, because at one point she remarked on how fluid my speech was, and then casually told me that I should feel free to let myself stutter to put people in the audience at ease.

Uh…beg pardon?

There’s a Jay-Z line for every situation, and here my mind flashed to the “Grammy Family” freestyle – “Everybody look at you strange, say you changed/Uh, like you work that hard to stay the same.”

I’ve come a long way in getting my stutter under control (with many miles yet to go). I’m proud of my progress. I wasn’t going to downplay that and mislead the audience into thinking my hard work had been for naught.

Wasn’t that what we were there for? To show people that if we could do it – “it” being get a handle on one’s stutter and develop a career in spite of it – then they could to?

My sense: yes and no.

While the conference organizers wanted us to demonstrate to audience members that they could get decent jobs despite stuttering, I got the impression they didn’t want us to say anything or act in a manner that might foster feelings of inadequacy or discouragement. It was subtle, that unspoken message of wanting to protect attendees from “feeling bad,” but it permeated the entire event in a way that I found off-putting.

(And yes, I get it, making people feel bad isn’t the best way to get people to pay for your conference the next time around.)

During my panel, the MC I met at the start of the day stuttered repeatedly. Maybe she was nervous. Maybe she was pandering. Who knows.

I spoke in my usual fashion. Everything went fine. I shook hands with the other panelists and headed for work.

I haven’t been invited to another conference since, nor have I volunteered to participate in one.

. . .

What did my father mean when he said that nobody would feel sorry for me?

Well, he certainly didn’t mean it literally; a quick perusal of the front page of any pop news site will show that there is no shortage of concerned citizens eager to express sympathy for people with perceived limitations and outrage at anything that can be labelled “bullying.” Virtue signaling is white hot right now.

No, what my father was getting at was that, while the world might offer you pity and platitudes – looking at you with soft eyes, starting a GoFundMe or doing some goofy meme challenge in your name, Thoughts and Prayers, etc. – nobody is going to just give you anything actually worth having.

They won’t because they can’t. A sense of accomplishment, genuine self-esteem born of meeting challenges – nobody can give you those things. They have to be earned. And the way to earn them is through overcoming adversity, whether it be in the form of poverty, a learning disability, or, yes, a stutter.

In this way, adversity is a gift and a curse. (There’s Hov again.) By its very nature, adversity tends to be unpleasant when you’re going through it, but in the long run it breeds adaptation, or at least serves as the soil from which adaptation might spring. Adversity provides us with an opportunity to find out who we really are and what we’re really made of. Through it we grow and improve and come that much closer to reaching our potential.

“If you’re strong enough,” adversity whispers, “you’ll get past me and become that person.”  

Recognizing this is the crux of the growth mindset. A growth mindset is one that does not view limitations as inherent aspects of one’s self, but rather malleable conditions that can be changed with hard work. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset which, as the name suggests, views current conditions as consequences of immutable personal traits. (For more on the the growth vs. fixed mindset distinction, check out Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.)

I spent most of my youth in the grip of a fixed mindset. Stuttering, being out of shape, being bad at math – all things I thought were just Me. This mindset didn’t serve me well. I languished for years being lazy, quitting things, and taking the easy way out whenever the going got tough. I’m still making up for lost time because of it.

Given that history, when I saw that conference seemingly endorsing a fixed mindset view of stuttering, naturally I balked. Telling people they should learn to feel normal in their impairments, implicitly sending the message that the world could and will accommodate them for it – I can’t think of anything more cruel than that sort of kindness. More cruel, or more offensive if actually implemented; taking it easy on someone, lowering standards and showing them mercy, because you expect less from them is the ultimate disrespect.

If you stutter, or know and care about someone who does, remember that. People who stutter aren’t victims of circumstance to be pitied – we’re people offered an opportunity to grow stronger through a particular form of adversity. 

Next time we’ll talk about the fundamentals of extracting the gift from the curse.