I use the word austerity in this piece, evoking its meaning of “extreme simplicity of appearance or style” to describe how ableist practices intend to curtail and reduce the vast variety of body expressions and voices. The austere is that which has been streamlined; is simple, not complicated; that which is controlled; that which is predictable.
The ideology of fluency comes from a perspective of viewing communication economically. Word economy, a series of values placed onto speech, is a necessary labor for speech to perform in integrating the subject within a diverse set of social forces. If fluency has a set of attitudes it is an emotional attachment to a certain specific arrangement and practical use of speech. This attachment is perpetually destabilized by the supposed-unpredictability of different speech.
Speech Language Pathology, as a knowledge system, came into existence to secure conversation from interruptions, to maintain clarity, and to ensure that conversations go on with a singular voice, instead many different echoes and syllable islands.
The teachings of linguistic regulation push subjects to be worried about interruptions and to pursue an ideal of conversational clarity. Some conversation partners may gesture or wince or sometimes ask a stutterer to repeat themselves. These demands are holdovers from the use of language within modernity for labor purposes. In the early Victorian era and in Europe, theater and official declarations centered on producing a hegemonic singular clarity. In the United States in the post-war era, lecturers were a primary form of entertainment; in all of the spoken arts, including in debate, norms oriented toward clear speech served an economic function: to make speech efficient and therefore valuable.
We speakers now walk around with hundreds of years of history of the glorification of clear speech and have to grapple with a fluency-oriented position toward speech constantly. In every confrontation with a person who feels the need to correct a stutterers’ speech, a new anxiety is made; mistakes are pointed out; impaled within our psych; prevented from floating into forgotten like so many other specific words. The series of performances done to point out distortions in speech, from the demand of clarification to the interruption to the finishing of words; all of these foment an incompleteness complex in the stuttering voice: the stutter from a place of emotional and bodily expression into an injury to the austerity of modern communication architecture.
In building the stuttering subject into a deviant persona, the stutterer is possessed by a ghost of the fluencentric imaginary. We are haunted by the disruption of our voices; we hear the routines of speech devaluation played out in an endless drama on the background of our speech. This is why one of the calls to fix stuttering—the “relaxation” cure—is so ironic; on top of a background of mandatory fluency, where slight mistakes are socially flagged as reasons for humiliation, the stutterer is told that if they would just be less anxious, there would be no problem. But this is false since the anxiety of the social group is projected upon the stutterer. In being told to calm down, in being told to relax and even when the stutterer has to suffer for a view of stuttering as lack of confidence, in all of these situations, a hologram of mass societal anxiety over inaustere speech is seen in the face of the stutterer. The able co-conversationalist must understand that the anxiety of the stutterer is an anxiety of a personal and collective history of targeting and othering unsmooth speech.
When anxiety is discussed as an element of disabled representation, when a disabled person is seen apologizing too much, often there is a criticism of that person’s character: it is seen as a representation of the individual as spoiled by the impairment. But roles are conditioned: anxiety as an affect is too often blamed on individuals when it has only arrived in the individual after being transferred and imposed upon them by wider social structures.