In our last post, you met Allison Ladavat, an SLP and person who stutters.
(If you missed it, read it here first.)
In this post, Allison continues telling her story, and we discover how her experience as an SLP graduate student played out.
In my experience in the CSD (Communication Sciences and Disorders) department, the differences between the instructors who supported me and those who did not were more like two separate categories than a spectrum. In retrospect, the difference was as simple as the supporters treating me in an equitable and fair way, judging my academic and clinical skills, and not my speech. I learned early on that my ability to learn the material and practice my skills was directly related to the level of comfort and safety I felt in the classroom or clinical setting. In the second category, the professors were not accepting of stuttering even if they thought they were - they had an ableist view - judging stuttering as less valuable and a “worse” way of speaking compared to fluency - I fought for their acceptance, not realizing I could never be in control of changing their mindsets. While in these classes and clinical settings, I had a higher baseline anxiety than what was typical for me. I didn’t feel safe. In some of these classes, a full twenty percent of our grade was based on participation points, I would find myself anxiously wondering: “Will we break off into groups and have to present something?” “When is the last time I answered a question? ”Will I be called on unexpectedly?” Imagine trying to learn new and complex information while being consumed with these thoughts and fears. I was living in the future because of anxiety, which made it difficult to learn in the present.
In classes that felt safe to me, I learned more easily and was more enthusiastic about the material, even if the topics weren’t of particular interest. Like most people who stutter, I dreaded oral presentations and was always afraid to read the comments on the feedback forms from my professors. After finishing a short presentation of a case study to a small group of classmates, read the feedback forms one-by-one. To this day I am baffled yet amused at what I read on one of the forms. After various check marks rating skills as either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” there was an area for comments. In that comment section, the sentence: “Next time, try to be more fluent.” It wasn’t written by one of the students. It was written by an instructor, a speech-language pathologist. What absurd feedback to give someone who stutters. Did that instructor think I had never tried to be more fluent? Did they think stuttering was something I chose to do? Did they think it was something I could easily turn on and off with a switch?
A clear example of the inequity I faced was with timed presentations. A 10-minute presentation was condensed to 6-8 minutes so I wouldn’t go over the time limit. The professors who were strict with these time constraints should have understood that compromising content to fit into the allotted time was indisputably unfair. I was always going to have points deducted, whether it was because of the content or the time limit, automatically starting me off below 100%. It wasn’t until the second semester of my second year of graduate school that I was encouraged to visit the Disabilities Office. I had an important project coming up, with an oral presentation piece. Anxiously, I walked to my professor’s podium after class and asked her if it’d be possible to not penalize me for going over the time limit due to my stuttering. Immediately she answered, “No because that would not be fair to the other students.”
After an incredibly frustrating experience with the Disabilities Office, having to find ways to “prove” I stuttered, I was approved for accommodations: time and a half for all oral presentations. A few extra minutes. I had to spend time and energy that I didn’t have, to fight for a few extra minutes. The accommodations helped, but they didn’t magically make my speech accepted by everyone. Sometimes, it was subtle: a “B” on an oral presentation with no clear indication of why there were points taken off. When questioned, the professor responding vaguely, “um, it just uh, wasn’t as good as other students’ presentations.” Other times, it was blatant, so clearly written that it’s still hard for me to believe. If I didn’t still have the grading rubric, I would have thought my mind must have fabricated or exaggerated the details. I have included it below.
|Skills||Below Expectations||Meets Expectations||Above Expectations||comments|
|Facial expression appears tense/unnatural||✔||during disfluencies|
|Error/irregularities in articulation, vocabulary, grammar, or pragmatics||✔||fluency|
|Inappropriate rate of speech||✔||fluency|
Curiously, another professor who evaluated the same presentation at the same time, did not comment on my stuttering and only checked within the categories of “meets expectations, above expectations.” Nothing about my actual presentation was different, so why the disparity between the two evaluations? I can assume from the comments that the one instructor graded based on an ableist viewpoint of stuttering – that stuttered speech is inherently “below expectation” or “not as good.” The other one did not. It wasn’t that he gave me special treatment. He simply treated me in an equitable way, without judging or grading me based on the perception that stuttering is “below” fluency. That same professor also provided a safe learning environment in his classroom, which made it much easier for me to pay attention and ask questions when needed. I was less anxious in the class and able to learn more easily. I was fortunate to have him as a clinical supervisor as well. On one of the first days of clinic, he completely surprised me by saying, “How can I support you?” This simple gesture of empathy, compassion, and acceptance was so meaningful. By asking this question alone, he was supporting me, helping to provide a space where I could learn to feel comfortable stuttering. It was this simple.
I would never claim to be the perfect student, or even a great student. As someone who struggles with ADHD, the classroom setting was always a challenge. But I now realize that stuttering never had to negatively impact my education to the extent it had throughout my school years. I also understand now that it’s not all my fault. I blamed myself for so long after I had graduated. Why didn’t I better advocate for myself? Why didn’t I speak up sooner and ask for help from those I had trusted? Only recently I’ve come to understand that as a student, I could never fully advocate for myself. I had believed they were the experts who knew more about stuttering than I did. And because of the power imbalance, it’s never easy for a student to speak up to a professor or supervisor.
I was confronted with many educational barriers throughout my years as a student and am proud of everything I’ve accomplished. It was an incredible challenge as a student fighting to make it through a rigorous and time-consuming graduate program while also being a mother to two young children. I often use this part of my story as an example when graduate students are overwhelmed and questioning their ability to make it to graduation. Stories of people overcoming obstacles can be inspiring for anyone who is struggling. Yet at the same time, the narrative of persevering as a person who stutters in the field of speech pathology makes me feel more angry than proud. I (or any other person who stutters) shouldn’t have to fight for the right to be an SLP more than any other student in the first place. It shouldn’t have been my responsibility to educate my professors or supervisors. I should never have had to advocate for myself to the very professionals responsible for advocating for people who stutter. It should have been true that the field I was entering was one that would be supportive and understanding. I was not wrong for believing that I should be accepted by my mentors, professors, and peers. Speech-language pathology should be the most comfortable, accepting, understanding, and compassionate profession for a person who stutters.
A Cautionary Tale
SLPs who stutter will never be fully accepted into this field as long as we view stuttering as inferior to non-stuttering. If stuttering is perceived as less acceptable or less valuable, then the person who is stuttering is not going to be treated like an equal, especially in a profession that places such high value on a very narrow definition of “perfect speech.”
My story is about ableism in speech-language pathology as it relates to stuttering specifically, because of my own personal experience. However, I want to emphasize there are students and SLPs out there who feel like outsiders (and are treated as such), due to the expectation of SLPs to look, act, and talk a certain way. For example, in school we are taught that all dialects are equally important and should be equally accepted, while black classmates are unfairly judged and discriminated against for using AAE. Race, gender, religion, accent, dialect, background, socio economic status, personality, or disability cannot predict the future impact an SLP will have on their students/clients/patients and the profession as a whole.
Instead of upholding and perpetuating our current standards and expectations that are mostly rooted in white supremacy culture (ableism included), we should value compassion, critical thinking, advocacy, social justice, and equity. This isn’t just about helping people who stutter become more accepted in this profession. It’s about changing our expectation of what a speech-language pathologist “should be” in the first place.
You can learn more about Allison and her work with people who stutter at Pittsburgh Stuttering Therapy: https://www.pghstuttering.com/
And for Allison's blog on neurodivergence that caught our eye in the first place, check it out here.