If you stutter, you’re not alone
[ Writer's note: The last names of the members in the story are not given to respect their privacy. ]
It’s a Tuesday night, and in the Speech and Hearing Clinic in the Academic Instruction Center at Western, David Evans, an assistant professor in the department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, greets people of all ages who have one thing in common: They have a stutter.
The Bellingham Chapter of the National Stuttering Association gives those in the community the opportunity to share their stories within a safe environment.
After all the members arrive, Evans leads them up the stairs to the library reading room on the second floor.
The atmosphere in the room is inviting. There are big comfy chairs and a couch for the members to sit on. This time, three members in addition to Evans have made it to the meeting: Ken, Reema and John.
Evans starts the discussion by describing a moment when he stuttered while teaching a class. A group of students started laughing, and he immediately assumed it was because of his stutter.
“I realize now that they could have been laughing at something completely unrelated, but at the time I thought they were laughing at me,” he says.
The severity of someone’s stutter can range from struggling on every word to speaking fluently most of the time.
Evans says it’s a myth that if someone can’t hear a stutter, then it doesn’t exist. Listeners sometimes can’t see or hear the behaviors in a stutterer. A stutter is an interruption in the forward flow of speech characterized by repetition of words abruptly, he says.
Stutterers often feel a loss of control of their speech and negative thoughts about themselves as a communicator. This can result in those with a stutter to speak less or stop speaking all together. The Bellingham Chapter of the NSA engages the community and allows those with a stutter to communicate with others who have similar experiences.
Evans has been involved in self-help groups for stuttering since he was 18. He sees changes in his communication skills but still feels self-conscious at times around his students, he says.
John, an older man who has stuttered for years, says he’s always aware of how he’s being perceived.
He says his fluency depends on others’ reactions. If he stutters and someone makes fun of it, he becomes even more self-conscious and begins to stutter more. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t notice the stutter or doesn’t say anything, he can relax and feel accepted.
“The stutter becomes a part of you,” he says.
Reema, a student at Whatcom Community College, is originally from Libya.
In Libya, her middle-school classmates would laugh every time she stuttered. She considers herself to be an outgoing person, but she would be embarrassed and stop participating in classroom discussions.
Now that Reema is at Whatcom, she feels more welcome because she says college brings out different perspectives.
Evans tells a story about a time in his youth when he was selling items door to door for fundraising.
“I would walk up to the door, knock and introduce myself as Mike,” he says.
He sometimes has a hard time pronouncing his own name, he says.The “D” is what gets him.
The group laughs.
“We can not only talk about it but now, we’re comfortable enough to laugh about it,” John says.
Evans says now that if he avoids a word, he feels a sense of defeat. He tries to take his stuttering head on and overpower it by speaking more and more, he says.
According to the National Stuttering Association, more than three million Americans have a variation of a stutter.
The Bellingham Chapter of the NSA gives David and others a space to practice their speech without fear of negative responses. The chapter was officially approved on Tuesday, April 19, and it’s open to all adults who stutter and their families, speech language pathologists and others who are interested in learning more about stuttering.
The chapter has about seven active members. On the last Tuesday of every month, they gather to talk in a friendly, relaxed setting. The meetings help them overcome their stuttering anxieties and to realize that there are others out there like them.
Because as the NSA says in its motto: “If you stutter, you’re not alone.”
John, Reema, Ken and David Evans chat about their experiences with stuttering during a recent meeting of the Bellingham chapter of the National Stuttering Association. Photo by Amanda Raschkow / WWU Communications and Marketing intern