Barry Yeoman, a man with a lifelong stutter, suggests that while society mostly views a stutter as a disability, stammering really isn’t the problem at all. At the Baffler, he argues that the real problem to cure is the assumption that those who stutter are somehow deficient.
Like virtually all disabilities, stuttering has long been viewed through a medical lens—as a pathology in search of neutralization, an obstacle to a successful life. That lens is embedded in the language of speech impediments and speech pathologists. At best, stuttering has been framed as a “despite” condition: we can be happy and productive despite how we talk.
Some of us, though, have been trying to flip the paradigm, to reframe stuttering as a trait that confers transformative powers. We wear our vulnerability on the outside, and that invites emotional intimacy with others. We slow down conversations, fostering patience. We give texture to language. We gauge character by our listeners’ reactions. We are good listeners ourselves.
“There’s something interesting about stuttering in a world that moves at increasingly breakneck speed,” says St. Pierre, the Alberta professor. For most of human history, we measured time in lunar cycles, menstrual cycles, agricultural cycles. Today we rely on “clock time,” standardized and designed for industrial production. Clock time values efficiency; it has no patience for silences and repeated syllables. “Stuttering highlights that fact: that clock time runs roughshod over all these other ways of creating time, but that they still persist and are still important,” he says. “Stuttering interrupts this hegemonic order of time.”
Alpern wrote an essay for Stammering Pride and Prejudice, an anthology published this year in the United Kingdom. (The British use “stammering” as a synonym for “stuttering.”) St. Pierre has a chapter; so does Constantino, who is one of the book’s editors. In hers, Alpern tells the story of ordering a “Bl-Bl-Bl-Blue Moon” at a bar and finding unexpected pleasure in the extra syllables. Part of the delight is in using a voice that is uniquely hers; part is the hard-earned absence of shame.
Part is physical: “that little loss of control that resolves itself so beautifully sometimes,” she writes. “I am falling through the air for an instant, then catching the ground again, like Fred Astaire pretending to trip when he dances.”