Say no to fluentism
9th May 2022
After a lifetime feeling ashamed of his stammer, Tim Shanks says a revolution is needed if we want things to change.
I have been away from the stammering community for over twenty years now and note the progress that has been made towards looking at stammering through the lens of a social model of disability (editor's note: the social model of disability is the notion that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Advocates believe that society needs to accommodate for these differences rather than disabled people having to adapt to fit in).
I have only just read the book 'Stammering Pride and Prejudice: Difference Not Defect' (edited by Patrick Campbell, Chris Constantino and Sam Simpson), and particularly enjoyed reading about its advocacy of more open stammering. I always remember hearing the journalist Patrick Campbell (a different one) stammering openly on the TV panel show Call My Bluff in the 1960s and feeling better with his positive role model. I was also very interested to read the chapters from speech & language therapists, concerned about the future of therapy.
I support a society that accepts stammering without prejudice, stigma and discrimination (aka fluentism). Where there would be no need to be fluent or ashamed of stammering. Where there would be no need for fluency therapy. This is a revolutionary ideal that could free people who stammer from a life of fear and avoidance.
Society will only be changed if it hears and sees stammering as acceptable. This is first of all a challenge that people who stammer must be brave enough to take up themselves. The action of stammered speech without avoidance speaks louder than the fluent words 'It is OK to stammer'.
Society will only be changed if it hears and sees stammering as acceptable. This is first of all a challenge that people who stammer must be brave enough to take up themselves.
This approach may not work for everyone. The ability to confront the stigma and prejudice of society in this way requires an emotional resilience that may not be available to all people who stammer. It has not been for me. If it is not for you, be kind to yourself. Being yourself is always good enough and better than trying to be perfect. Be like the cartoon character of my youth, Popeye, whose catchphrase was 'I am what I am'.
In my middle age, following the ideas of famous stammering academics Johnson and Sheehan, I was only accepting my stammering by cutting down my avoidances as a way to become more fluent. Not the same thing at all as true acceptance without a need for fluency. True acceptance will cut down all avoidances. This will eliminate your fear, tension and struggle which are a large part of your problem, and should leave you with more open and easier stammering. This could be called Stammering Acceptance Therapy?
Currently, most adults will have to work hard at this acceptance and may need psychological help to achieve it. It will be easier for young children to be taught this approach and take it into their adult life. This new approach is similar to the Avoidance Reduction Therapy of Joseph Sheehan — or the first two stages of Van Riper's Block Modification (Identification and Desensitisation). However, the fundamental difference is that there would be no thought that this would improve fluency.
I think it is understandable in our current society for the parents of the young child who stammers to want fluency. But the dangers of this approach should be pointed out to them by responsible therapists in conjunction with adults who stammer for whom this approach has not worked and maybe even harmed them.
I hope there will be brave parents and children in the future who will be educated to resist this pressure to be fluent at all costs that can be so harmful.
I wish I had been offered the choice of acceptance and pride. However, as I was prone to insecurity and anxiety anyway this may have been difficult to take on board. I hope there will be brave parents and children in the future who will be educated to resist this pressure to be fluent at all costs that can be so harmful. The result will be more happy children, teens and adults who stammer.
If the vision of STAMMA is an acceptance of stammering in society then its primary efforts should be towards achieving this goal. There should be an active promotion of some form of stammering 'acceptance' therapy. If we want to talk the talk, we should walk the walk. A secondary aim should be to accommodate those unwilling or unable to accept this approach by supporting them and informing them of alternative approaches.
Only since reading Stammering Pride and Prejudice have I fully realised that I have spent my whole life trying and failing to be something I am not — fluent. It is depressing being afraid and ashamed of my stammering. I have only recently been able to fully face the truth that I have hated my stammer. If I could learn to love my stammer I know I would be in a better place. It makes this old man happier to Say No To Fluentism.
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