In 1998, the European League of Stuttering Associations, International Fluency Association, and International Stuttering Association designated October 22 International Stuttering Awareness Day. This year, the theme, “speak the change you wish to see,” highlights the ironic undertones of spreading awareness about stuttering; people who stutter must wield their stutters as an educational tool in order to spread awareness. They must speak and overcome past experiences and trauma surrounding their stutters so that they can prevent others from facing the same harm.
I’d like to think that I’ve been speaking the change I wish to see ever since I realized it was something I could do. But what good does “speaking the change” actually do? One thing I’ve learned is that when you have a stutter, the problem isn’t not being able to speak – it’s not being listened to. It’s trying to explain your stutter and having someone respond, “Oh, I sometimes stutter too.” It’s trying to explain that having a stutter doesn’t make someone inferior and being greeted with a pitying smile and an “I’m sorry you have a stutter; that really sucks.” It’s seeing people’s eyes drift away as you try to finish a sentence because they are unable to pay attention as you struggle to get out what you want to say. It’s telling people not to say certain words, not to interrupt you, not to mock you, and having those same people continue to do it anyway.
As I’m writing this right now, I’m thinking about the girl who chuckled when I repeated “that” twice. I’m thinking about how my stutter has shaped the person I’ve become, and I’m thinking about all the laughs and mocking that sent me home in tears. Last month, I was talking to someone for the first time, and I had some trouble getting out a word. He gave me a funny look and grinned, as if my struggles with my stutter were a shared joke between us. I don’t tend to start every conversation I have with “Hey, I have a stutter; don’t make fun of it,” because I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to wonder if the person I was talking to noticed my red cheeks and embarrassed smile. I understand that some people have never encountered someone with a stutter, but that doesn’t make it okay to laugh at or mock me.
At a school like College Prep, most students' disabilities are invisible. Stutters, deafness, blindness, mental health: none of these disabilities can be seen. You wouldn’t even know they were there if you weren’t explicitly told, and you never know what harm you may be inflicting upon someone who has been struggling with an invisible disability their entire life. It only takes one word or bad joke. So, be careful what you say, and treat others with respect and kindness. Even if they ask you to repeat a word because they’re hard of hearing. Even if they stutter. Even if they’re taking some space because they’re having a bad day. Even if they are neurodivergent. You never know what’s beyond the surface, what kinds of things people are holding within themselves.
The change I wish to see is easy to practice and more general than anything. Normalize talking about invisible disabilities. Stop saying the r-word. Ask questions instead of making assumptions. Don’t mock stutters. Don’t finish sentences for others if they’re trying their best to finish a thought. Don’t act as if having a stutter makes people less-than or worsens their quality of life.
The truth is that, as an individual, I can’t do much besides speaking the change I wish to see. The rest of the work is up to the people around me. I don’t know how to get people to stop saying the r-word or how to get them to stop repeating what I say as if it’s a funny joke. I’m not a joke, my speech isn’t a joke, and none of this is funny. Treat others with respect, kindness, and empathy. End of story.