I had a job spraying weeds two summers ago and worked with a guy named Mike: well acquainted with everyone, a story always perched on his tongue, and three decades an employee. Parked in a dusty, stale truck one afternoon, Mike and I were waiting out a bout of rain when it happened. Near the end of my somewhat elongated sentence, he snapped to attention with a simple “huh?” I painstakingly repeated myself, trying not to stutter, and again, “what?” This happened several times. While I had been working intensely at speaking and being understood, Mike had put no effort into listening, hadn't even bothered to try. This moment was filled with the sudden and overwhelming realization that I do not, and cannot, stutter alone. Stuttering is rather accomplished between a speaker and a hearer. Or, if one wants to insist that stuttering is a breakdown of communication, it is a breakdown that occurs between the speaker and the hearer.
If this is true, then why do dysfluent speakers bear the entire load of responsibility for "breaking" communication? Why are we taught to feel ashamed when it takes a little longer to communicate? Why are we taught to loathe our speech (and very often, ourselves) because others don’t want to take a little extra time and effort to listen? If communication is an interaction between speakers and listeners, then the stutterer alone should not be marked as abnormal and disabled. There is a real sense in which listeners who “disable” our speech by refusing to take responsibility for their role in communicating are the “faulty” communicators. We communicate together; and we stutter together.
In that spray truck two summers ago, for the first time instead of feeling shame for my stutter an entirely unfamiliar response was welling up: anger at being ignored, anger at being excluded.
The realization that it takes two to stutter announced a shift in how I would understand my disability and the response of others to it. I realized that stuttering and the shame it caused me could not properly be explained by the mere physical difficulty of vocalizing certain words. Realizing that my manner of communicating is interpreted as abnormal and as a disability by others because it conflicts with a particular set of values and social structures, I came to understand that stuttering is not primarily about me speaking “wrong,” but is rather a form of ableist discrimination. This realization allowed me to reinterpret much of my previous experience, as well as my current identity, relationships, and goals. To say this was empowering would be an understatement.