If I want your help, I’ll ask.

The hardest thing about stuttering isn’t stuttering at all: it’s how people react to it.

4 minute read
Samuel, a white man seen in profile from over his shoulder, looks thoughtfully out on a city street.
Writer Samuel Dunsiger does not need anyone to “fix” his speech disability. (Photo courtesy of Samuel Dunsiger.)

Like many North American university students, I tended to frequent the local Subway restaurant on campus. My go-to order was the cold-cut trio sub with bologna, ham, and salami on flatbread. However, ordering my toppings turned into an ordeal.

“What would you like on your sub?” the server would ask

“M-m-m-,” I began.

The server cut me off: “Mustard?” Then: “Mayonnaise? Mozzarella cheese?”

I should’ve said, “This isn’t a game show. There’s no prize for guessing the right answer.”

Instead, I would just proceed with my order.

“M-m-m-m,” I stuttered, before shifting gears and completely surprising the server with “banana peppers with garlic aioli.”

I knew what toppings I wanted. However, I have a speech disability that impacts my ability to articulate the important thoughts rummaging around in my head, such as choosing my sandwich condiments. It manifests as stuttering: the involuntary disruption of words through prolongations, repetitions, and pauses. Think “my name is Ssssssamuel” or “My name is S-s-s-s-amuel.”

Navigating others’ reactions

I don’t mind that the way I speak can build a little suspense or surprise, as with my Subway order. But it can be frustrating to struggle with something as completely habitual as uttering your thoughts. And contrary to what you may think, the most frustrating thing about stuttering isn’t the act of stuttering at all. It’s having to navigate the various—and often ridiculous—reactions of people to my speech disability.

People who don’t stutter evidently feel equipped to pathologize my disability. Stuttering is among many non-apparent disabilities prone to social stigma, and people tend to form their own opinions about why I’m talking differently. This means that I find myself incessantly explaining that I’m not talking this way because I’m nervous, because I’m tired, or because my mother neglected me.

“Bad parenting”?

I bring up that last one because of something we experienced in 2011, at a Fort Worth conference for folks who stutter. My mother accompanied me because despite what some strangers assume, she is an immensely supportive parent. We were in the hotel lobby, talking about stuttering, when a man who didn’t seem like he was there for the conference interrupted us.

At first, the exchange seemed innocuous as he voiced his thoughts that parents can do more for their children who stutter. He wasn’t totally wrong, and my mom remained civil towards him.

Then he unapologetically suggested that my mom’s “bad parenting” was the source of my stuttering.

My sweetheart mom proceeded to lambast him in a way that was completely uncharacteristic of her. “How dare you even remotely suggest that I had anything to do with my son’s disability! Where do you get off telling someone that?” she told him. I’m omitting the expletives.

He tried to defend his opinion by referencing some cockamamie theories about a supposed link between poor parenting and the onset of a speech disability (more than a decade later, I’m still waiting on the groundbreaking research on any correlation). He continued to drone on about his bologna (not the Subway topping), but my mother wouldn’t have it. I’m used to handling peoples’ lousy assumptions, but in this case, I was angry to see my mom targeted as well. I could’ve spoken up too, but she can hold her own, and I couldn’t be prouder of her.

Fixing my “problem”

It was the first and last time we saw that judgmental stranger. But the hotel dude wasn’t the only person who thought they could explain, diagnose, or treat my speech disability. It’s part of a phenomenon disabled people know all too well: random passersby miraculously claiming to have all of the knowledge, wisdom, and expertise regarding your disability.

Samuel, a white man, stands smiling on a city street wearing a hat, gloves, and parka. He holds a cup of coffee.
Writer Samuel Dunsiger knows his order when he steps up to the counter. It just may take a bit longer to say. (Photo courtesy of Samuel Dunsiger.)

Once I was writing an article for a magazine about the emerging trend of hypnotherapy, or hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. So I interviewed hypnotists who help people manage their habits, anxieties, or fears, such as smoking or fear of flying.

After I spoke to one hypnotist, he too succumbed to the urge to voice his opinions on my stuttering. “You know,” he said. “I bet I can help you fix your stuttering problem.”

Before I was able to interject, he told me that stuttering is all in my head (news flash: it isn’t) and that hypnosis would rid me of my disability. He proceeded to offer me a free hypnotherapy consultation, claiming that after one session with him, I wouldn’t be stuttering anymore.

I didn’t know how to respond so I politely refused and thanked him for his time.

If I need help, I’ll ask

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad my disability is out there in the open. The way I see it, these apparently non-disabled, self-appointed experts are only trying to help. Even when people try to finish my sentences for me, just like the server at Subway was doing, it’s most often because they think they’re helping me. But let me ask for help when I need it—on my terms, please. Not yours.

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