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How I Learned to Embrace My Speech Impediment

I didn't acknowledge my stutter to friends until my 20s.

by Samuel Dunsiger
September 16, 2019 | Living

It took me almost a minute to say my name.

“Hi, I’m S-S-S-S-Samuel,” I said to an Uber driver back in 2016. “Just so you know, I have a stutter.”

To my surprise, he told me that he used to stutter, too. We bonded over our mutual experience. He explained that, when he was younger, his parents tried to get him to sing what he wanted to say.

"I'd rather stutter than sing," I told him.

Stuttering is a communication disorder that involves repetitions, blocks and other disfluencies. It’s also more common than we know. The Stuttering Foundation of America estimates that about 1 percent of the global population stutters. That’s more than 70 million people worldwide and 3 million people in the United States alone who stutter.

I've had a speech impediment since I was three years old. But I wasn’t always open about it. When I was growing up, I felt ashamed. With the plethora of issues I was dealing with, like puberty and acne, the last thing I needed was to talk differently.

But, over the years, I’ve gradually accepted my stuttering. I’ve learned that it isn’t anything to be ashamed of — I've even embraced it. There are a number of things I’d recommend to anyone coping with a speech impediment, or another communication disorder.

Say no to avoidance

While I was growing up, I avoided most social situations because of the shame I felt about my stuttering.

I never raised my hand in the classroom, even if I knew the answer. I didn’t pick up the phone. I made up excuses to get out of socializing.

Black and white photo of a young man, wearing a bow tie. Rewire PBS Living Speech Impediment
Meeting other people like me changed the way I see my speech impediment, and the way I see myself.

It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of avoidance, especially when you fear that people may react negatively. Sometimes, they do.

During my first year of journalism school, I was interviewing someone on the phone — much to my chagrin — for an article I was writing.

At the end of our conversation, my source took it upon himself to mention my stuttering.

“I noticed that you have a speech impediment,” he said. “I’m not so sure if you should be a journalist. Maybe you should do something that requires a little less talking.”

I wasn’t sure how to react. So I politely thanked him again for the interview and hung up.

At the time, I wasn’t open about my stuttering. And the man on the phone confirmed my negative thoughts: Were most people going to be like this? Will they think less of me? Will they judge me negatively because of how I talk?

Throughout my teenage years, I allowed these thoughts to get the better of me. I mostly kept to myself and avoided speaking up in conversations.

However, looking back, I shouldn’t have let the fear of other people's reactions deter me from being myself. Besides, I was wrong — the guy on the phone turned out to be an anomaly.

Connect with others

When you struggle with any disorder, it’s normal to feel alone. After all, while I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone else who stuttered. That’s why it’s so important to connect with others who are facing similar challenges.

For me, it happened when I was in my early 20s. It was a significant turning point in my life.

In 2011, I was seeing a speech therapist who encouraged me to attend the National Stuttering Association conference, the largest gathering of stutterers worldwide.

For the first time, I met other people who stutter. And I met 800 of them — people from all walks of life. Being at the conference was like stepping into an alternate reality where stuttering was the norm and fluency was the rarity.

To my surprise, everyone was stuttering openly. They weren’t ashamed of it. In fact, they embraced it.

This encouraged me to start accepting my own stuttering and stop feeling ashamed about it.

Speak up about it

Once I accepted my stuttering, I found myself starting to open up about it more — with friends, family and even coworkers.

I was talking to my parents about it. I was mentioning my stuttering in job interviews. I was transparent about it. It was no longer a taboo topic that I avoided like the plague.

After coming back from the conference, I met a childhood friend for coffee.

“I just got back from Texas,” I told him. “I was there for a conference for people who stutter.”

“Oh, that’s awesome,” he said.

He knew that I stutter. Well, I’m assuming he did. We never actually talked about it. In fact, this was the first time I brought up my stuttering — or even said the word “stutter” out loud.

The more I started to open up about it, the more I realized that people were accepting of the way I talk.

Unlike the man on the phone, they looked beyond how I spoke and listened what I had to say.

Being open about my stuttering helps dispel the many misconceptions about the communication disorder. According to the National Stuttering Association, these myths include that people stutter because they’re nervous, that people who stutter are less intelligent and, my favorite, that stuttering is caused by bad parenting.

I also realized my honesty let people know I wasn’t ashamed of my stuttering. Not anymore.

Embrace the benefits

Now I’m at the point in my life when, not only am I open about my stuttering, but I embrace it.

Because, believe it or not, there are benefits to having a speech impediment. It makes us compassionate. It makes us better listeners. It makes us perseverant. And, let’s face it, it makes us memorable, in a good way.

Last year, I went to the liquor store wearing a T-shirt that said "Keep calm and stutter on." I approached the cashier, who immediately noticed the shirt. She said she liked it and told me that her mom stutters too.

The more I embrace and open up about my stuttering, the more I find that not only are people sympathetic, but they can actually relate. Between my interactions with my Uber driver and the cashier, being true to myself has opened the door to many conversations that make me feel much less alone and misunderstood than I have in the past.

While I used to see my stuttering as a disability, I now see it as something I just happen to do. It still sometimes takes me a minute to say my name, but I’m OK with that.

Samuel Dunsiger
Samuel Dunsiger is a writer, mentor and comedian from Toronto, Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @samdunsiger.
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