It was about two years into my comedy career when I walked into the new swanky comedy club that recently opened near me. It was plush and clean. The green room had not yet been christened by decades of comedians that made you question sitting on the couch or touching the surface of a coffee table (even before COVID). Word on the street was that the booker was looking for comedians to put up in her room and by attending a showcase, you might be able to find work as an opener or emcee. Disappointed by the lack of audience (out of the 200 seats only 6 were filled), the show suddenly turned from a showcase to an audition as the booker sat in the back evaluating each comedian. My set was pretty good considering the less than optimal comedy condition so I felt confident going up to the booker to inquire about possible work on showcases.
After a friendly introduction I inquired, “Is there a show I might be a good fit for?”
She quickly responded, “You know what? You keep on going to open mics and I am sure one day you will stop stuttering.”
Suddenly I wasn’t a comedian anymore. I was reduced to my stutter with the focus on how it could be fixed. I am not sure how closely she was listening but acceptance of my stutter and the jerky things people say to me is a cornerstone in my act. Well, that and dick jokes. My act was overshadowed by the assumption that I wanted a cure.
Soon after this happened, this experience turned into a bit in my act that I still tell. In fact, the bit had more of a shelf life than the club! After 10 years of doing comedy and going to all those open mics, my stutter persists—unlike that comedy club which closed a few months after it opened.
There is a narrative that anybody who stutters should strive to overcome it. There must be some technique, a cure or medication, that should result in fluent speech. The only cure for stuttering I have found is being quiet and many years ago I decided that wasn’t an option any longer. Society—especially the media—presents stories of stuttering where someone conquers their stutter and frames it so that conquering it in and of itself is success, or that it opens the door to success. I’ve seen this perspective in articles written about me with titles like “Former Stutterer Writes Book About Her Experience In Comedy.” Former stutterer? As if having recovered from stuttering is the only reason someone would want to buy the book! Fluency is portrayed as the main goal and the ultimate achievement for one who stutters. This raises a question that I always had growing up: Can you be successful and stutter?
Similar narratives of overcoming and success emerged around presidential candidate Joe Biden’s stutter, in part because he talks about his stuttering in the past tense. Biden’s “hero’s journey” includes how his mom set the nuns at his Catholic school straight about his stutter and how, with the help of Irish poets, he found fluency. This story of overcoming is why I was bracing myself while I watched the Democratic National Convention. The rumor in stuttering circles (ok, maybe nothing that underground, mostly just my friend Pam Mertz, a stuttering activist who posted on Facebook) was that stuttering would be front and center the night Biden accepted his candidacy. I whipped myself into an anxiety frenzy that night. I was sure that the message was going to portray overcoming stuttering as a mark of a strong character and work ethic.
There was a segment before Biden’s speech about his friendship with Brayden Harrington, a teenager who stutters, highlighting how they met and immediately connected. It reminded me of the many times I had spoken to people who stuttered and the immediate feeling of connection. That feeling is what many people in the stuttering community (yes, there is a community and we are pretty awesome) call “stamily.” As soon as you meet another stutterer, it is like coming home. They understand your struggles, from ordering a pepperoni pizza on the phone to going on a job interview. Anyway, the segment went on to tell the story of Harrington, giving a speech in his room and stuttering through it. Stuttering through it without shame, without the goal to be fluent and focusing on clear, strong, yet dysfluent, communication. He stuttered without apology, whereas so many of us apologize for our speech.
The subsequent news articles I saw were no surprise. They echoed the overcoming story. Biden overcomes stuttering. Harrington overcomes stuttering. Everyone should be overcoming stuttering!
The Disability community, which I consider myself a part of, generally doesn’t like the overcoming narrative. It is usually presented to us as, “Why are you sitting in that wheelchair? Shouldn’t you be exercising those limbs? I saw someone like you climb Mt. Everest. Now if they can overcome their disability, I am sure you can too.” That’s the cue for the Disabled person to say something like, “Ok, but can I go to the bathroom now? You are standing in the only accessible stall.” We are often shamed for not trying hard enough to get rid of a disability. It feels like a good part of our day should focus on rehabilitation or remediation instead of doing the things that all humans like and deserve to be doing, just living as we want.
Watching Harrington’s segment was when the overcoming narrative became clear to me! I believe that he overcame something, but it isn’t what fluent people think he overcame. Those moments in his room, on the world stage, he was overcoming the internal and external stigma faced by so many of us who stutter. We have been taught to believe that how we speak should change and that we should minimize our natural form of communication to make others comfortable. When we overcome, it is not stuttering that we are overcoming. It is overcoming the learned patterns of thinking of ourselves as defective. If we believe the problem is in us and our stutter, then it is stuttering that needs to change. But what I have learned as a member of the Disability community is that the problem with a disability is not in us, but rather in a world that is inaccessible to us. This can include physical, attitudinal, or communication barriers. We don’t need to overcome our stutter. Instead, we need to overcome discrimination, stigma, and bullying within our society that oozes through our cellular membranes and lives inside us.