Sunday, January 24, 2010

Nail Head, Meet Hammer

First, a shout-out to my friend Jamie Rocchio for providing a great topic to discuss. Jamie is a regular guest on the podcasts, and on Episode 172, a little less than half-way through, she raised one of those questions that cuts through the BS and gets right to a critical point regarding stuttering therapy:

“If it’s OK to stutter, then why do I have to change?”

You are welcome to go listen to the podcast and hear both the context of Jamie’s question, and the discussion that ensued. Here, I’m going to take the question as my own and see what I can do with it.

An Internet search of the words “OK to stutter” comes up with a limited number of hits, most using the admonition as advice to children. Such advice can be understood as a reasonable effort to remove the stigma and fear of stuttering from children. In this case, “it’s OK” means that it is not a crisis or a disaster. This is a neutral statement: “It is all right/it is not bad/we will not be angry if you do it.” Giving the stuttering child permission to stutter (which he or she will inevitably do) without self-imposed penalty can only aid in lowering anxiety levels regarding speech performance.

There is, however, another variation on the “OK to stutter” meme. In this case, the statement is a positive one. We could phrase it variously “There’s nothing wrong with stuttering” or “there’s no reason why you should try to stop yourself from stuttering” or even “stuttering is just another way of speaking.” Here, the words are my own, but I’m trying to reflect a “stutter-positive” attitude that is not difficult to find in the stuttering community. As I understood Jamie’s statement quoted above, this is what I heard he to be referring to. The advocacy of open stuttering and voluntary stuttering could hardly exist without my paraphrasing above being reasonably accurate.

This stutter-positive message can easily be supported by reasonable, rational argument. There is, in fact, no reason for stutterers to feel shame or guilt or fear. Those are all self-imposed punishments, and can be removed with reflection and self-examination. While stuttered speech is sub-optimal, it is capable of containing the same information content as speech in the normal/fluent range. Some listeners will respond negatively, but we are all capable of understanding that fact and taking it into account. With sufficient equanimity, we can humor the less-than-sympathetic listener and pity those who are hostile.

Given the above, and given that such stutter-positive messages come from speech therapists as part of their understanding of the nature of stuttering and the condition of the stutterer in society, I could reword my friend Jamie’s question above to direct it towards the speech therapist thusly: If stuttering is OK, then what am I paying you for? If the therapist - as opposed to the stutterer - believes that stuttering is OK in a positive sense, then the need for speech therapy, as opposed to psycho-therapy - goes out the window.

In order to deal with the baggage of years of stuttered speech, a person needs to shed the negativity that has encrusted them like barnacles on a ship’s hull. The fact that those negative feelings can be reinforced every time we speak means that we have to both give up the memory of old fears and stop the generation of new ones. If we understand our stuttering as sub-optimal speech performance rather than a moral or personal failure, then we can be free to engage in speech therapy (speech performance improvement) without the negative secondary feedback of performance anxiety. If, on the other hand, we take literally the admonition that stuttering is OK - as in there’s no reason we should wish to not do it - then this reasonable, rational admonition does raise what we might call the happy-stuttering speech therapist’s dilemma: If I really believe this, why don’t I just send them to a psychologist to deal with their negative emotions and let them stutter in peace?

This is the question I understood Jamie to be asking on the Stuttertalk podcast, and the question never did get answered. We can imagine an answer that squares the happy-stuttering circle, but it requires one say “When I say it’s OK to stutter, I don’t mean….” This is a complex subject, and simple admonitions don’t lend themselves to subtle distinctions. The problem is two-fold. Sometimes, we hold conflicting positions that lead us into logical dilemmas when examined (stuttering is OK: there is value in speech improvement therapy). On the other hand, our way out of the dilemma may be to accept that we really don’t mean what we say.

Note: All interpretations of statements made on the Stuttertalk podcast are my own. I have taken a quote from the podcast for my own purposes. To hear Jamie and Eric discuss the topic in their own words, please go here:


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