Why should I have to be fluent?

The article's author, Kaitlin Naughten

3rd November 2020

Meeting other people who stammer transformed the way Kaitlin Naughten viewed her speech. Here she challenges the idea that she has to conform to expectations of fluency.

I am a scientist and I am a person who stammers. Over the years I have learned that these two things can peacefully co-exist.

I like science because I am curious about the world. My job is to be curious about Antarctica and how climate change is melting the Antarctic Ice Sheet from below. I build computer models of the Antarctic ice-ocean system and use them to run controlled experiments.

Being a scientist means many things: I am an explorer, a detective, a writer and a software engineer, depending on the day. I never get bored because my work is always growing and changing.

The world is built assuming that everyone has easy access to speech, but this complex physical and neurological task simply does not come naturally to me.

Good science involves a lot of communication. I thrive on written communication: scientific papers, blog posts for the public and excessively long emails to my colleagues. But because the world was built by fluent people, I also have to do a lot of speaking. Coffee breaks with my office-mates; Zoom meetings with international collaborators; presentations at conferences, sometimes to 200 people; job interviews that could determine the future of my career. Even nerve-wracking appearances on national radio.

This is exhausting for me. I have what one speech therapist described as a 'high-frequency stammer', which means that on days when I stammer the most, every syllable is a negotiation. I know all too well the feeling of blocking in front of a room of people, when time slows down and the atmospheric pressure seems to triple as the next word is suddenly a mountain in my path that I can't remember how to climb. The world is built assuming that everyone has easy access to speech, but this complex physical and neurological task simply does not come naturally to me.

Transforming how I see myself

For a long time, I judged myself very harshly for my stammer. I would come out of meetings feeling horrifically embarrassed. I would convince myself that if only I tried harder, I could speak like everyone else. And when I gave a presentation, fluency was the only metric that mattered to me. I knew that other things were supposedly important — content, clarity of message, slide design — but they felt trivial in comparison. Surely nobody would care about excellent slides and an excellent script if I blocked on every second word. 

I began to view my speech more objectively, as a neurological condition rather than a moral failing. 

I don't feel like this anymore, at least not very often. The stammering community in the UK has completely transformed the way I see myself. As soon as I met other people who stammered, I began to view my speech more objectively, as a neurological condition rather than a moral failing. 

The emerging 'stammering pride' movement introduced me to the compelling idea that stammering is not inherently negative, and that fluency should not be a prerequisite for full participation in society. Repeatedly watching myself speak on video, when rehearsing for an important presentation, helped me to realise that stammering does not look or sound anything like as bad as it feels. 

A man sitting in a bar looking at the camera with the text 'Share your story'

Standing up for stammering

My goal is no longer to achieve fluency — because why should I have to? Instead of trying to conform to the expectations of my listeners, I focus on making things easier for myself. The stammering courses at City Lit have been really helpful in this regard. I've also learned that speaking is easiest when I feel confident, and that confidence requires unconditional acceptance that my brain produces speech in a unique way. 

My goal is no longer to achieve fluency — because why should I have to? Instead of trying to conform to the expectations of my listeners, I focus on making things easier for myself.

I've also started to view my stammering not as a burden, but as an opportunity to improve the accessibility of the world around me. At the conferences I speak at, the strict time limits for presentations were probably never openly challenged until I rocked up. My colleagues may have been surprised when they first heard me speak, but the next time they meet someone who stammers, they will know exactly how to react. 

As people who stammer, we never asked for this responsibility. But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that when we stammer openly, we're doing our bit for equality, simply by existing.

What do you think? We'd love to hear your views. If you'd like to write an article for the site, click here to find out how.

City Lit is one of a number of courses for people who stammer. Read more about the range of options in our Therapy & Courses section.

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