Monday, November 28, 2011

Stutterers Who Stutter

I'd like to take aim at the 'person who stutters' business in this entry. For those who don't know, an assertion has been made that 'person who stutters' is preferable usage to 'stutterer.' As a person who demands accurate language (or is simply a language fuss-budget) this dispute is right up my alley.

There are a few facts I'd like to establish regarding 'people-first' language. First, it came from outside of the stuttering community. On the web site of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, they justify person-first language with references to the National Easter Seals Society and the National Rehabilitation Association. I think that it is highly likely that these two organizations had no input from stutterers when they created their own guidelines.

So the people-first preference originated in groups concerned with other disabilities. But isn't the principle the same for all disabilities? This leads to our second fact. In both the deaf and the blind communities, people-first language has been rejected. That is, a sufficient number of blind and deaf people spoke out against people-first constructions to knock it down in their fields. (see Wikipedia).

Which leads me to ask, how did people-first language gain ascendancy in the world of stuttering? A little thought on the subject leads me to speculate thusly. People-first language took hold in the professional speech pathology field because the advocacy for it focused, successfully on a top-down adoption, and because there was no grass-roots stuttering 'community' to raise their own voice to reject it.

To elaborate on the lack of reaction to the people-first movement by stutterers, I'll point out that in the Boston, Massachusetts area where I live, there are two National Stuttering Association support groups. For the chapter that meets nearest to me, a very rough estimate of the population it serves would be the Census Bureau's Boston-Quincy MA Metropolitan division, which has a population of over 1,800,000. Which, given the 1% estimate of stuttering incidence, would give us 18,000 stutterers. At the meetings I've been to, we've had between two and five stutterers attend. So much for a 'stuttering community.' The fact is that stutterers, unlike the deaf or blind, seem to naturally avoid each other at all costs.

Given the lack of sociability or unity in this community (to the degree that we can call stutterers a community at all), I think we can rule out the change to people-first language out of any 'bottom-up' effort by stutterers to choose how they are defined. This virtually universal change in a perfectly well understood (and neutral) term came from the top down, for our own good.

So why did they do it? Why did the ASLHA decide in 1992 to tell workers in the field to change their language? Here I recommend you read the ASLHA web pageon the topic. I'll respond to each of their 'principles' here.

First, they instruct - not suggest - that person-first language be used, citing the two documents I referred to above.

Specifically, they say "Disabilities are not persons and they do not define persons, so do not replace person-nouns with disability-nouns." What we have here is a failure of logic. Researchers and clinicians do not discuss 'people who stutter' in their roles as family members or employees or artists or citizens. Speech pathology professionals discuss 'people who stutter' BECAUSE THEY STUTTER. If a speech professional is writing about my speech pathology, I expect them to focus on the pathology, and not my love of fishing, or my role as a son and brother.

The second principle, disability versus handicap, is not relevant to the person-first issue.

The third principle is only tangentially related to 'person-first,' but I can't resist giving it a kick. This principle proscribes the use of the normal/abnormal dichotomy. Here we are told to replace 'normal speakers' with 'individuals who were judged to show no speech, language, or hearing impairment.' Good God! Here, we have a failure of clear thinking and writing on a major scale. Speech pathology exists because some people speak abnormally. The normal/abnormal dichotomy has not been used by the speech pathology profession to define those who stutter as 'abnormals.' To suggest otherwise would be quite an indictment against the profession.

The fact is that speech is a normal human process. Our bodies are designed to produce speech in a near-effortless manner. Some of us suffer from a pathology of speech - we stutter. There are people who speak normally, and there are people whose speech is interrupted by abnormal efforts and output. Stutterers speak abnormally. That's why we go to speech language pathologists and pay them money. That's why Ph.D. researchers are given grant money from the government. To deny that some people speak normally and some don't is to be perverse. That the professional association that works with stuttering seeks to deny the plain facts of the condition - its abnormality - is mind-boggling.

The fourth principle advises to "avoid terms that project an unnecessary negative connotation. For some reason, a majority of the language they proscribe does not refer to speech, so why they include it here is a mystery. Their comments on 'courageous' and 'unfortunate' are reasonable, but get lost in the rat-bag of terms they include.

Their final principle is an interesting one. "Don't overdo it," they recommend. I would suggest that given their first four principles, they need to do some thinking of their own.

To sum up: I am not a fan of 'person first' language. I think it results in euphemisms that don't make distinctions of value. We are not dealing with terms like 'retard' or 'cripple' here. In our case, the difference between 'stutterer' and 'person who stutters' is in the mind of a small number of people, and trivial at best. It was adopted by speech language professional organizations out of either a fear of offending (at best) or a 'cover your ass' mentality (if we go along with it, no one will be able to accuse us of being 'insensitive'). My main objection to the adoption of person-first language in the stuttering field is that no one asked me for my opinion, and the adoption of person-first gives someone, somewhere veto power over both writers in the field and over stutterers like me. Did it occur to anyone at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association that some of us might be offended by person-first language? Apparently not. As happens so often in these matters, the squeaky wheel got oiled.

There are times when 'person who stutters' or 'those who stutter' fits a sentence. I use the form myself - when it is appropriate. I am offended when my 'sensitivities' are shielded by far-off professionals, as if I was some kind of hot-house flower, and they the father-protector of my fragile psyche. And I am offended by bad writing and euphemistic jargon. I am a stutterer. And a local history expert. And a vegetable gardener. And an opinionated blogger. I don't need an alphabet-soup organization protecting me from the fact of my own half-century old speech pathology. Deaf people boast of their identity. Stutterers don't need to help of speech language professionals to run away from ours.

Note: for another rant against 'people-first,' read this.


  1. Mark, I agree with you 100%.

    People claim that using the term “stutterer” implies that stuttering is the essence of a person. I've never found this argument convincing or appealing.

    We use nouns all the time to refer to people, and ourselves, without implying that this is all we are. A person might describe himself/herself as an opera-lover, a cook, a writer, a therapist, a pianist, and a singer. None of those descriptions imply that that's the totality of the person. Should we instead say "person who plays piano"? "Person who cooks"? "Person who writes"? "Person who practices psychotherapy"?

    Everyone understands the stutterer/singer/pianist type of wording, and no one is confused by it. Similarly, no one thinks that a stutterer is ONLY a stutterer. Why then should we invent and enforce the awkward phrase "person who stutters"?

    (There was a recent discussion of this issue in the "ask the professional" forum of the ISAD 14 online conference -, under the title "PWS vs. stutterer".)

  2. Shame on you for writing this. Have you not thought of the MILLIONS of children who will be raised in a world where heaven forbid people use tolerant language all the time. I forgot it is so horrible to inconvienience ourselves for possible good of future PWS and others affected by disability. Many individuals feel trapped under their one adjectival description. Person first at least gives them the opportunity to express that there is more to their being. And honestly your clinging to objecting to person first language is archaic and close minded. Have fun in miserable isolation. I hope you never find yourself in the mood for a more tolerant society, because you won't be invited. While you are busy complaining about awkward phrasing the rest of civilized society will be embracing change for future generations to enjoy.