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When Silence Is a Plea Bargain: On Life as a Stutterer (guernicamag.com)
48 points by fern12 29 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 27 comments



I'm curious if any others with a stutter have had a similar experience as myself. I've always had a severe stutter, and spent many years in speech therapy learning to deal. I'm fairly good at managing it, using many of the same techniques others in this thread have mentioned. Of course, the stutter never got better, I just became better at managing it.

However, as an adult I was diagnosed with ADD and started to take a low dose of Adderall. Of all the ways this was a positive influence in my life the largest change was that as long as I am medicated the stutter completely disappears. I don't know if I can put into words what a sense of relief this was :). I will always remember the first time I spoke without analyzing and organizing every word before hand, one day a sentence just came out without a single thought. I've actually had to relearn having a filter on what I say. If I go off the medication for more than a day, the stutter comes back in full force.


As an introvert prone to social anxiety, a lot of this resonated with me. I however, am not subject to betrayal by my own voice, as a stutterer must be. This passage really stood out;

Absent the context afforded by weekly papers and emails, silence acts as a blank slate onto which people tend to project their own insecurities, expectations, even paranoia. It can masquerade as apathy, or rudeness

I've always found that keeping quiet was just easier in so many ways. Consequently I've always been seen as quiet, reserved, stoic at best or cold and judgemental at worst. I've only recently come to realize what a disservice I've done myself by keeping quiet all these years. No one knows what I'm about if I don't tell them. If I'm kind and generous, I have to tell people what I'm about, who I am, through words and actions.


Agreed. Yeah I noticed this pattern when someone else was being quiet, others including me unfortunately thought at first they are being either mean, aloof, or alternatively not interested, which later found out they were just shy and introverted. But by then the damage was already done, people form an opinion quickly based on first impressions.


This is my case as well (i.e., not a stutterer, but introvert prone to social anxiety). When I was a toddler, my family took a vacation to Mexico, and on the way back into the US, a very stern border patrol officer (who I realize now was just doing his job), started barking questions at me one after another. I immediately froze, and refused to speak. He pulled us over to the side, and it became a tense situation with my parents freaking out, and everyone pressuring me to speak. Fortunately, my sister is a chatterbox and resembles me enough that he let us go (plus, I had my passport), but the experience left a strong impact on me. After that, I felt like I relived the moment in school, every time the teacher called on me to answer.

Later on, I became a bookworm in part because through reading I found that I could pick out words and phrases to reuse in normal conversation.


Sorry that happened to you. It's insane to yell at a toddler like that, and your parents should have defended you.


Thanks. Later, my parents tried explaining that he was only trying to prove I could speak English. But yeah, that was the first and last family vacation we took to Mexico, lol.


Forgive me for commenting so much, this is a topic very near and dear to my heart. I encourage all of the engineers out there to look at a stuttering fluency device called the SpeechEasy. It's a very deceptive device that is ripe for innovation.

1) the device works on the chorus effect, echoing a person's voice to help smooth out fluency.

2) its not gurranteed to work, won't work for most people, and likely beneficial effects will wear off within 1-2 years.

3) Minimum price: $3,000

4) Not covered by most insurance companies.

SpeechEasy like devices and other fluency technology is ripe for disruption. I encourage all engineers and software developers to consider how low cost technology can be made to assist people with disabilities.

/soapbox plea


Speecheasy comes with an "invisible" earpiece to transmit the playback. Wouldn't it be relatively easy to create a mobile app to perform the same way and have a special earpiece as an accessory?


Yes! There have been lots of discussions about how to fix this issue. Mobile app, but also a bluetooth earpiece and independent device in the pocket, etc. My encouragement is to focus on cost. The technology behind the SpeechEasy is 1950s tech. Surely something could be made off the shelf that works just as good, for a lot, lot less.


> Guidance counselors, speech therapists, and teachers alike flocked to my suddenly choked speech, forming what

Well my childhood speech therapist was ironically located in a mental hospital. So in order to attend the session my mom had to drag me through "a hallway of horrors" where having to pass by patients there either staring catatonically into space, mumbling nonsense, or doing other weird stuff. Needless to say I didn't attend those for too long. But I do remember them trying the latest research techniques on me, which was a delayed audio feedback loop, not sure how effective it was, because we didn't come back after a while.

Another thing I noticed is that my cousin also stutters, wonder if it is genetic in any way. His stuttering was triggered by being scared by dog once. Don't remember why mine started.

> I substituted in place of “trouble words,”

Heh, you'd be surprised how many synonyms I know because of that. Some words don't have good synonyms, those words are to be feared and they cause extreme anxiety ... which causes even more stutter.

> and my classmates were quick to assure me that it sounded just as ridiculous as I thought.

Yeah on the plus side I guess I developed a pretty thick skin against being made fun of, as I've been made fun of constantly, well since as long as I remember.


It never occurred to me that my stutter could spill across into the way I write - but it does - the word choices I use when writing are directly related to the word choices I'd use when speaking. I use similar word substitution tactics to get around a minor stutter, its lead me to have a much wider working vocabulary than I would otherwise.


> word substitution tactics to get around a minor stutter

What are those?


I have a stutter. Here are some examples:

I almost always stutter on the word "but", so I say "though" instead if it fits.

Same as "but", I can't say "butter" easily. In a restaurant if I ask for butter I'll usually say "Could I have some vutter?" which sounds close enough to 'butter' if you slur it just right.

I have trouble saying "dad" so I say "father" instead.

I'll get stuck on the 'm' in "money" so I'll use "cash" instead.

There are hundreds of implicitly defined rules that I've learned over the years. When I was a kid, my stutter was really, really bad. As I've aged, I don't think it's necessarily gotten better, but I've learned all of these rules that let me hide it. So it can usually take people several hours of being around me before I encounter an unavoidable word.

The most awkward part is I occasionally stutter on my own name. But I can mitigate this by leading into it with something else, which makes it easier to say. So when someone asks what my name is, I don't say "Foo", I say "My name's Foo" -- the 's' from "name's" helps soften the first letter and slide into it easier.

If you haven't seen it, watch the movie "The King's Speech". As a stutterer, I found the portrayal quite accurate. Also, the strategies the speech coach gives the king are similar to what I do. For example, there is one line where the king must give a speech and use the word "people", but stutters on the 'p', so he "bounces" into the word by saying "uh-people" which is a lot better than stuttering on the 'p' for 10 seconds.

All this being said, the only time in my life I have been really angry about having a stutter was during an quiz bowl (competitive trivia) match. I buzzed in immediately, knowing the answer, but was unable to say it. I stuttered on the first letter for a solid 5 seconds, and as the judge called time-out I finished the word, but they deemed it past time. And then because I'd said the answer, the other team just buzzed in, used my answer, and got the point.


You live with a censor in your head. If the censor doesn't like a specific word, you cannot say it. Your vocal muscles tense, then freeze like iron, causing you pain. Or perhaps they begin to repeat the same motions, uselessly, until you stop talking. This list of words changes over time and circumstance, but some sounds might be reliable predictors of problems.

The way around that is to find some other word to use to express yourself. Or stop talking as much as possible.


That's the most insightful explanation I've ever read on this subject. Thank you for helping me to understand.


There are probably people that you have known for years that stutter and you don't realize it. I almost never stutter in interviews, on dates, or casual conversation in public. It's possible to "hide" in normal casuals settings. If you feel a block coming when you want to say "outrageous" just say "crazy" instead and things like that. I once worked on a team where two other guys stuttered, a DBA and Project Manager which is extraordinary since I think it affects less than 1% of the population. Anyway I knew instantly that they stuttered because they would take pauses a lot and the DBA in particular spoke very slowly like he was constantly thinking about his choice of words. I don't think any of us ever stuttered on the job but from someone familiar with the situation it was clear that coping mechanisms were being used to increase fluency.


Exactly. The thing that I've struggled to explain to others is just how exhausting those coping mechanisms can be. I've lost count of how many times I've had to explain "No, I'm not shy, I'm just completely exhausted from talking".


This explains a lot about my speech patterns, I never realized they developed as a result of my childhood stutter.


I met a lawyer who did contracts because he didn't have to talk. His word substitution game was amazing. He practiced constantly swapping words when he had a block.


I worked with a really great DevOps guy who had a bad stutter, and was not a native English speaker. I myself had a surgery that paralyzed one of my vocal chords and I couldn't speak above a whisper for years and still can't be heard in loud places. I can commiserate with just wanting to let other people know what you're thinking, but just not physically being able to do it. It's not easy, but the isolation it caused gave me my tech chops today. Not sure I'd always trade that tit for tat, but c'est la vie.


I definitely isolated myself as a kid and poured myself into tech. I much preferred to hang out on IRC rather than face to face. At least on IRC I could say what I wanted without pouring a great deal of energy into saying it. I know what you mean, part of me wishes I didn't have the stutter at all, but because of it I have a great career.


Wow this is very powerful. I use to volunteer with kids who stutter, and the frustration, sadness, and silence due to an inability to communicate clearly was so painful to see.


Why isn't this considered a disability in the U.S.?


Things like stuttering or other disabilities (whatever you want to call it) should definitely be included in the diversity and acceptance efforts.


It is in some, if not all parts. Many people with severe stutter are on social security disability.


Interesting, I never heard of this. The father of an old friend I had was a severe stutter. Multiple elongated blocks in every sentence. I use to come over and witness his dad getting ready for one of his many manual labor type jobs and wondered what opportunities he missed out on due to his disability and whether or not he should be able to collect some kind of assistance for it.


The job market is horrible for people who stutter. This is primarily due to the speaking issues, but also just as significantly, is the tacit bias towards people who stutter. People who don't understand think it's a mental condition, or someone is speaking too fast, etc. They're repelled by this person with a speaking disability. Most people do not understand that 1) we have no idea what causes stuttering, 2) there's no cure for it, and 3) it's typically a lifelong condition. I met a lot of people who stutter who would take any job they can get. This one young man got a degree in IT, really smart guy, but it took him 51 interviews before he finally landed a job with the city's IT department.




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