What Do You Call a Woman With a Speech Disability? Invisible.
The silencing of women has always been the uncomfortable status quo. Imagine then what it's like for women who struggle to communicate.
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It was late afternoon and the guitar shop was empty. I was behind the counter, using a step-ladder as a makeshift chair. The wall behind me was filled with acoustic guitars, their strings occasionally vibrating, rustled by the air conditioning. Years ago the sound had alarmed me—the twang of an E-string being plucked behind you in an empty room can be unsettling—but I had worked at this shop for a long time. My uncle was the owner, and I’d been a salesperson since I was fourteen. Now I was a college student living an hour away, and only working here on the weekends.
Through the display window, I spotted a man approaching the front door. It was winter and he had no coat on; he was apparently in too much of a rush. He walked fast, sprinting almost, and I stood up, preparing myself to greet him.
In my head, I took an inventory of which words I might be able to say. Welcome! How can I help you? That won’t work, I decided quickly. You always stutter on words that start with W, repetitive as the wah-wah of a whammy bar. Maybe, simply: Good afternoon. But remember last week, in class, when you blocked on the same phrase? You were caught in a stoppage, lips halted, airflow deflated, frozen for 15 seconds before gulping down another breath and beginning the cycle all over again.
Before I could decide, the front door swung open. I opened my mouth and said, “H-h-hi there—”
“I need a capo,” the man interrupted, rushing towards the counter. Well, I thought ironically, at least he saved me the trouble of saying hello.
I’ve stuttered for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my family didn’t know that stuttering is a neurological and genetic speech impediment that’s incredibly complex. All we knew is that I stuttered, and often. My mother took me to the pediatrician when I was 5 years old, but she was told not to worry, that I would outgrow my stutter. While that’s true for three-fourths of kids who stutter, it wasn’t true for me. I was enrolled in speech therapy and practiced my techniques at home, but I still never stopped stuttering. And while there are ways to attempt to manage your speech, once you’re an adult, the chance that your stutter will be cured drops to zero. By my teen years, I had joined the rare 1 percent of Americans who persistently stutter; and rarer still, I was a woman with a stutter. Men outnumber women who stutter four to one —a gender disparity that researchers are still trying to understand.
At 21, I had finally started to accept that my stutter would be lifelong. But I was still grappling with the idea of being a woman who stutters: an outlier among outliers. Potentially voiceless because of my speech disability, potentially voiceless because I live in a culture that regularly silences women.
“Capo,” the man said again, eyes darting around impatiently.
“Sure thing,” I said, my tone light and friendly, walking towards our wall of accessories. I pulled two capos off the hook: one shaped like a semicircle, with a twisting mechanism on the top—great for tight sound, but harder to adjust quickly. The other capo was a clamp—with a spring similar to what you might find in a hair clip—ideal for fast changes that don’t require precision. I slid both capos towards him on the counter.
“Here are t-t-two options—”
“What’s the difference?” he asked, not meeting my eyes. He pulled out his cellphone, checked the time, and sighed.
I took a deep breath. “Th-th-this one is…is…is great ffffor quick ch-ch-ch-changes wwwww-wwwwhile this one is…is—”
He looked up from his phone, eyes bowed in annoyance. “I don’t have time for this,” he mumbled. “I have a gig in an hour.”
I looked back at him, my cheeks flushing red. “Th-th-this one,” I continued, not knowing what else to do, “is rrrrrrrr-rrrrrrreally…ppppppp…ppppppp…” Precise, I thought. Just say precise. “Pppppppp…ppppppppppp—”
“I knew I should’ve came in earlier this week,” the man interrupted, rolling his eyes. “No offense—” He looked me over then, a college girl in jeans and an oversized sweater, “but Johnny really knows his stuff.”
Johnny was my co-worker who started a few years after me, who I helped train. I wanted to mention this, to defend myself. Or mention how I’ve worked here nearly a decade, how my uncle is the owner and trained me himself. But I was so flustered by the insult that I could barely speak. The severity of my stutter is highly situational, often worsening depending on the environment and the listener.
“I’ll just take this one,” the man said abruptly, grabbing the nearest capo and walking to the cash register. I rung him up silently, swiping his credit card without my usual chit-chat. Only after he had returned to his truck and driven down the street did I allow myself to cry.
This is not an isolated incident, and certainly not the worst. My disability and gender are always impacting how others react towards me in conversation. Like most women—and most women who stutter—I have endless examples of silencing: the professors who dismissed my contributions in-class because I stuttered; the seemingly polite men who, in conversation, spoke over me or didn’t wait for me to finish speaking; or worse still, the flirting men who called my stutter cute, expecting me to be grateful that they’re willing to overlook my verbal “flaw.”
Most of the challenges I face in everyday life are a result of both my disability and gender, and are impossible to separate. For example stuttering is often misinterpreted as a sign of nervousness and weakness, a stereotype I’m also forced to contest because of my gender. It’s widely known that women are more likely to be interrupted while speaking—and this phenomenon is only amplified when you’re a woman with a speech impediment. Women are told that the only way to gain respect in everyday life, particularly in the workforce, is to speak firmly and clearly; for women who stutter, however, fluent speech cannot be conjured on-demand—especially during stressful situations. As a result, women who stutter struggle to be heard and respected more than most.
Some might ask: in this essay, are you addressing men alone? Are you never dismissed or silenced by women, especially those who don’t stutter? Of course not. Humans are innately imperfect, including women, and stuttering is extremely misunderstood.
But I will say this: women are much more likely to wait patiently while I speak, to allow me the time to finish my own sentences, to maintain eye-contact, and treat me with respect—even when I stutter. I have no objective data to offer on why this is the case, but if I had to propose a theory, it would be this: society has tried to silence women for centuries and women know it. Women also know how it feels to be dismissed or disregarded because of something we can’t control: gender, disability—these are predetermined outcomes. These factors exist inside our DNA, and most people are aware enough to recognize that.
Yet there are still significant consequences of living in a society that views my gender and my disability as fundamentally weak. I’m judged more harshly by strangers. Even when I’m speaking, I’m more easily ignored. Rather than being an equal in conversation—metaphorically and literally—I must fight to be heard.
It’s been four years since that day at the guitar shop, and I’ve been dismissed because of my disability or my gender a dozen more times, at least. But I’ve also graduated from college, completed a master’s degree, and have a full-time job in my field. More and more, I’m reflecting on the relationship between power and silence, between stuttering and gender, and how these things have shaped my identity. I’m wiser, I know. But not stronger.
Despite what some people may think, I have always been strong.
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