An SF State student's solution to stuttering

I quietly applauded myself after I successfully finished a presentation in front of my Community: Changes and Development class last semester without having to use the word “community.”

I had a list of synonyms I prepared beforehand like “group,” “populace” and “citizenry,” which were words I knew I could say fluently. I didn’t care if they sounded odd in context; I only cared if I just got the words out of my mouth.

These words are only a few of the hundreds that I have in my arsenal of word substitutions, which I’ve perfected from when I started stuttering at age five. I managed to become adept at avoiding certain words, so I became a walking thesaurus of sorts to hide my stuttering.

“In my case, I was fairly good at hiding it when I was in college in my 20s,” said Jim McClure, spokesman for the National Stuttering Association and stutters himself. “One result was that by being a master of word substitution, I developed a perfect vocabulary.”

Stuttering is a communication disorder that involves blocks or disruptions that inhibit one’s speech. It usually begins during early childhood between ages 2 and 5, but rarely lasts throughout life. Approximately 1 percent or 2.7 million people in the U.S. deal with stuttering. Its causes are unknown, though today we can say with certainty that stuttering is largely a genetic condition, said Scott Yaruss of the University of Pittsburgh, who specialized in stuttering for more than 20 years.

“We know that it’s not a psychological condition in terms of its cause,” said Yaruss. “It’s actually a neuro-motor, neuro-linguistic problem that we don’t fully understand, but we know that it has something to do with how the brain processes language and speech.”

Many covert stutterers, like myself, make up tricks and techniques to hide their stuttering, but they promote false fluency. Using word substitutions or paraphrasing will make a covert stutterer fluent for hours, days and even years, as long as they avoid certain words they know they can’t say.

I’m a journalism major who has trouble saying the word “journalism” sometimes. So like many covert stutterers, I would sometimes simply lie to people about my major. If I couldn’t say “journalism,” I’d say “English” or “Liberal Arts.” Heck, I said “mechanical engineering” one time, and I hate math!

These word substitutions dictate how I speak with people and how I deal with social situations. There’s a constant fear of judgement covert stutterers deal with, which affects tasks where communication is imperative, from answering the telephone to ordering at a restaurant. Stuttering, in these instances, becomes stigmatized, and feelings of guilt, shame and fear about one’s stutter becomes overbearing to deal with.

“What holds people back in stuttering is not the disfluent speech, it’s their fears about the disfluent speech, which are normal and understandable fears,” said Yaruss. “The more they diminish those fears, the easier it is to communicate.”

Stuttering was one of the main reasons why I took up journalism as a profession, particularly print and online journalism. I needed a sort of conduit to have my voice heard, and speaking definitely wasn’t one of them. Writing and telling stories has become a form of catharsis for me. It’s seamless, and doesn’t take any physical tensions or gyration to produce a well-crafted sentence.

“There seems to be a number of people who stutter who are journalists and writers. The fact that we could write better than we could talk is logical,” said McClure.

The choices I made in life revolved around my stutter, even times when I wished to speak up. And it wasn’t until I came to terms with my stutter that I started to own up to this speech condition.

Fluent speech isn’t necessarily the admission ticket to a normal life, since keeping this facade of fluency left me drained. Constantly thinking about words I wanted to say, and then filtering those words with other words I knew I could say, just took a heavier toll on my life than it needed to.

“The first thing we have to learn is to stop judging yourself. Something I’ve observed and lots of my friends have too is that we pay a great deal more attention to our stuttering than our listeners do,” said McClure. “I used to think that every stuttering block I had went on some sort of permanent record like in Catholic school.”

Like McClure, I’ve come to accept that I may take considerably longer when reciting a sentence in front of a class than the regular fluent speaker. And that it takes a lot more effort for me to say “Matthew” instead of “Matt.” And that my stutter may never completely go away.

I’ve come to terms that stuttering is a part of who I am. It’s something I’ve learned to deal with, and isn’t something I should try to hide. The next time I introduce myself to a stranger, I’ll be sure say, “Hi! My name’s Matthew, and I’m a journalism student who stutters.” Whether I sound fluent or not is completely negligible.

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  • Thank you for sharing that article. I am in Minnie Graham’s Fluency class this semester and am looking forward to hearing you speak next week. Thanks for being so open about stuttering so that we can all learn from you!

  • Hi Matt,

    I’m in Minnie’s fluency class too, and I’m glad you’re coming to speak to our class. Thanks!

  • This is really awesome, Matt. The courage it must have taken to enter into a career where it’s required to speak to people all the time must have been considerable. Keep up the great work, and keep on being a great example that anything is possible.