By Mollie Davis
It was sweltering hot in Washington, D.C., on June 12, 2018, when I stepped onto a small podium to give a speech at National Die-In Day, a rally recognizing the two-year anniversary of the shooting attack on Pulse nightclub and calling out the inaction of lawmakers regarding gun violence since then. A friend handed me the microphone and I began to speak, making my case for stronger gun-control laws and reading texts I exchanged with my friends on March 20 of that year, during the shooting at my high school. It was hard to talk about that tragic day in front of so many cameras and onlookers, but I got through the speech and walked away feeling proud of myself.
That night, I was watching a replay of the event at home, when I noticed the comments people left on the live stream. Many were kind, but one, in particular, stuck out like a sore thumb: “Spit it out, bitch.”
I am one of the 70 million people around the world who stutter. That’s one in every 100 people, but the impediment is still vastly misunderstood and discriminated against. It’s defined by the National Institutes of Health as “a speech disorder characterized by the repetition of sounds, syllables, or words; prolongation of sounds; and interruptions in speech known as blocks.” But that’s often where understanding ends, and stigma begins.
Some people think stuttering is something to make fun of, an easy playground target for bullies to use against nervous kids. Others believe it’s something to be trained out of you, and films like The King’s Speech — which earned multiple accolades, including a Best Actor Oscar for Colin Firth — don’t help dispel that notion. And a widespread misunderstanding of stuttering has permeated some of the vitriol surrounding how certain people in the public eye speak.
To be clear, stuttering is not a sign of low intelligence or a psychological problem; rather, current research theorizes that it is likely caused by the interaction between someone’s childhood language development and motor abilities required for producing speech. But people who stutter often struggle to be taken seriously.
Take former Vice President Joe Biden, who has had a stutter since childhood. What he says, and the tone with which he conveys it, are absolutely worth analysis; he is, after all, running for president, and his habit of trotting out reductive talking points rather than answering questions hasn’t resonated well with would-be voters. But critics have been quick to interpret his stutter in particular as a sign of senility and offer it as proof that he does not have the mental capacity to be the President of the United States.
When a young Biden supporter who also has a stutter brought it up to the candidate in August, Biden reminded him: “It does not define you. It cannot define you.” But that hasn’t stopped people online from judging Biden’s habit. And whatever your politics, when people deride someone who stutters, it spreads misinformation that impacts the stuttering community on a much larger scale.
“The worst experience I’ve ever had with someone being ignorant of my stutter was being told by a teacher in high school that I had communication issues and needed to learn how to speak properly,” Tanuja Sowdagar, a 21-year-old student from Georgetown, Guyana, told MTV News. “At the time I hadn’t encountered another person who stuttered so it took a huge toll on my self-esteem and self-confidence. Those comments lingered at the back of my mind for a long time and made me hypersensitive to any other instances of rudeness or misunderstandings I encountered.”
Often it’s not the speech impediment holding people back —other people’s attitudes toward it seemingly block opportunities from us. It happened to me: After the shooting at Great Mills, I felt compelled to speak up about the impact of gun violence and what could prevent what happened at my school from happening elsewhere. That led to a series of interviews; for one of them, a producer called me to prepare for the spot. I told her that I have a stutter, and added that it’s just a “small thing,” and not a huge hindrance. She quipped back that it didn’t “sound small.” That particular appearance fell through for an unrelated reason, but her remark stung. It made me feel as though I wasn’t fit to be a spokesperson for my community, and harshly reminded me that just being confident in myself wouldn’t always be enough.
“Unfortunately, people who stutter are stigmatized as being less intelligent, less competent and less capable of being a leader based solely on their disfluency,” National Stuttering Association board member John Moore tells MTV News. “The assumption is that people who are eloquent speakers make for better politicians and leaders.”
Moore calls that belief “obviously false,” and adds that true leadership “encompasses much more than being a fluent speaker. The best politicians and leaders display empathy, build productive relationships, motivate people, and make sound decisions.”
“Stuttering doesn’t lessen a person’s potential,” Sowdagar added. “We are all able to excel in every field of life if given the support, understanding, and a fair chance.”
I’m passionate about politics, enjoy public speaking, and would love to run for public office someday. After every press appearance, class presentation, and discussion with politicians about gun violence prevention, I always leave wondering if people were frustrated by listening to me talk, or if they thought I was stupid because of my speech impediment. I especially have this worry after meeting with lawmakers, as it’s important to me that my experience with gun violence as a school shooting survivor is taken seriously.
It’s especially frustrating when people cut me off to say the word or phrase they think I’m about to say. More often than not, their guess is incorrect, and it displays a lack of patience when they can’t just wait a few more seconds for me to finish my own sentence. The jarring reality for people who stutter, and people who speak “differently” in general, is that you can be the smartest or most compassionate person in the room and people will still treat you as less-than just because of how you speak. It shouldn’t be that way.
“In my experience being a part of the stuttering community for over 20 years, I have met the most incredible communicators who happen to be people who stutter,” Taro Alexander, founder of The Stuttering Association for the Young, told MTV News. “We who stutter have tangible things to offer the world in that we can teach people patience and how to be a better listener.”
Stuttering has shaped me into a better listener since I strive to give everyone the same amount of patience I would want them to give me. And as I push myself to continue public speaking, it’s reassuring to see people standing on one of the most-watched stages in the nation, facing some of the same struggles I do.
As frustrating as it can be to exist in such a fast-paced world as a person who stutters, I refuse to stay silent. By speaking up regardless of my stutter, I have opened doors for myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I hope other people take the time to listen, because now as much as ever we need to pay attention to what each of us has to say.