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Stuttering Microaggressions: What SLPs Need to Know

Stuttering Microaggressions: What SLPs Need to Know

A few months ago, we posted the information on our Facebook and Instagram accounts regarding the microaggressions that those who stutter face every day in their communication environments. The feedback we received on these posts has been tremendous, and you have told us that this topic was thought-provoking and helped to change the way you see yourselves as allies of those who stutter.

We are still receiving comments and requests to share the information about microaggressions and stuttering. To make it easy for our colleagues to access and share, we are combining the information from our two posts (one written post and one video) and blogging it here so you can help to spread the word on this important topic!

What’s this about?

WARNING: The concept of microaggressions and stuttering may be hard to read, because you may recognize statements that you have made to those who stutter.

We know through research that the lived experiences of those who stutter are filled with these types of comments perpetuated by well-meaning people who are trying to help.

It is our intent to present these ideas from the perspective of those who stutter who may be experiencing these actions and statements in a very different way.

There are many ways that messages of help and support can become problematic for those who stutter. Categories of micro-aggressive actions and statements may include:

  1. Complimenting fluency
  2. Advice-giving
  3. De-validating the lived experience of stuttering

Here are just a few micro-aggressive comments that people who stutter often hear.

  •  “You sounded so good; you didn’t stutter at all!”
  • “Just take a deep breath and slow down.”
  • “Try that again and use your tools.”
  • “Don’t be nervous, just relax.”
  • “I hardly notice that you stutter. It’s no big deal.”

To be certain, these comments are disempowering and do not help those who stutter in the long run. In fact, as Grossman & O'Malia report, "...therapy protocols that focus [sic] to achieve [a certain level of] fluent speech can actually be very detrimental in the long run, eventually leading to excessive struggle to speak fluency and an ever-increasing set of avoidance behaviors to suppress stuttering."

What is my role?

This is where our clinical understanding and acceptance come to the rescue. If we truly believe that It is OK to Stutter [and we DO-and it IS], then we can start by taking time consider what it feels like to have others tell you how you "should" be talking! (This is what those who stutter report) If we all take a step back, and really think about what we say to people who stutter, we believe that change is possible.

Some of our colleagues have asked us to post a list of what to say/do instead of the types of comments listed above. We would love to do that, but the truth is…

We can’t script our way out of microaggressions!

Decreasing and working toward eliminating biases and stereotypes about stuttering requires a SEA-CHANGE. This change results from taking stock of the perceptions and expectations we have of those who stutter. These reflections are deep, and they are imperative for each and every one of us; personally, professionally, and societally!

Your way forward will depend on where you are in your understanding of the lived experiences of those who’s stutter. We all have to begin from where we are, and peel back the layers of the biases we may be holding on to regarding stuttering itself, people who stutter, and for SLPs - inherent biases that show up in our therapy

What can allies do?

Here are some important concepts that may help you in your journey of self-reflection:

  1. Give yourself grace on the road to self-awareness. It’s not an easy or comfortable road, but we all know the most important reflections and actions are seldom easy.

  2. Self-awareness of unintended messages (both internal and external) about stuttering is imperative. All of these messages can present an idea to those who stutter that they are NOT OK, and how they speak is NOT OK! And we can do this without being aware of it. Reflect on the following questions:

  3. Do you say/think “good” for fluency?
     Do you praise (or allow others to praise) for “not stuttering?”
     Do you think/use words like “bad” or “worse” to describe a student’s stuttering on a particular day?
     Is your therapy PRIMARILY about strategies?
     Do you introduce any strategies for the intent of “helping to not stutter?”
  4. Deeper reflection of biases is where change can really happen! We must challenge ourselves to ask the harder questions:

  5.  Do I have biases about how people who stutter should talk?
     Do I hold stereotypes about stuttering or about those who stutter?
     Where do these biases come from?
     How strongly are they embedded in my belief system?
     How do they show up in my therapy with people who stutter and their families?
  6. Find new perspectives. When we reflect and expose where we have held the biases, then we can fill the spaces with overarching concepts:

‼︎ Value the message over the stutter

Make certain the message (and goal) of therapy is primarily about functional communication, and less about fluent speech. Therapy goals that include percentages of fluent speech create a battle of psychology and neurology that a person who stutters can’t win.  

‼︎ Value communication over fluency

If stuttering therapy is about communication freedom, then it can balance decreasing struggle of speech with spontaneous speaking that includes naturally occurring stutters.

‼︎ Value connections over differences

With these shifts in our focus, we can prepare to eliminate microaggressions. Our words, actions and inherent messages will begin to reflect our deeper understanding of communication differences.

Where can I get more information?

* A great article by our colleagues Dr. Heather Grossman and Mark O'Malia keeps the discussion going. Truly, it is a MUST READ! They discuss microaggressions from the point of view of the clinician AND the person who stutters. We highly recommend it.  Link HERE 

* This book is just one of the many resources available to help SLPs, families and society understand that (as Scott says) “stuttering is more than just stuttering!” Click to find out more about this gem!