In the most obvious sense, stuttering is undeniably a form of disability. Stuttering is a “speech-language pathology” studied by scientific and medical experts. It is even listed in the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for goodness sake. Our bodies are medicalized and treated as disabled.
More importantly, though, stuttering is an obvious disability candidate from the perspective of critical disability studies. In critical disability studies, what makes something a disability is the challenges faced when moving through an ableist world, and it is clear that stutterers are regularly discriminated against because of how we process spoken language.
Yet stuttering is nevertheless positioned in a curious gap between disability and abled-bodiedness. The stutterer is often understood as not quite fully abled or disabled. As I have argued elsewhere:
Unlike the experience of being blind or deaf, stutterers are clearly expected to perform on the same terms as the able-bodied. No one would likely tell a quadriplegic to “walk already” or a deaf person to “listen up,” since it is understood that these actions are beyond their control. However, since a stutterer’s disability is not understood as absolute, since the stutterer is [seemingly] not really disabled, stuttering can evoke irritation out of listeners who wish that she could just “spit it out!”
I think there are a few reasons stutterers often avoid identifying as disabled. The first is out of respect for people with “real” disabilities. Because stuttering is sometimes on the limit of what qualifies as disabled, and because we think of disability as a very bad thing, stutterers may not want to compare themselves to those who “have it worse.” Another reason is to avoid the stigma associated with disability. Disabled people are routinely cast as objects of pity and charity, and many stutterers do not want in on that party. And finally, unlike many other forms of disability, stutterers are able to “pass,” or hide their disability. When stutterers successfully pass, they dodge much of the ableism leveled at stuttering, making whether they are disabled a complex question.
I’d like to suggest, though, that distancing ourselves from disability and disabled people has two significant and dangerous effects:
1) First, as the above quote indicates, no matter how proficient one gets at passing and/or using fluency techniques, playing on the terms of the able-bodied is a treacherous game. We will always be expected to speak by the rules of “normalcy” until normalcy is dismantled. No stutterer can be fluent all the time, and when one fails while passing-as-normal they fail hard. Claiming a disabled identity frees us up to speak on our own terms and by our own rules. I believe this is a far healthier way to live.
2) Second, and related, distancing ourselves from disability—saying “I am not like them”—reinforces the ideal of normalcy that affects us all. Put in different terms, all of us—blind, deaf, quadriplegic, epileptic, stuttering, bipolar, intellectually disabled—are oppressed by a shared logic of ableism. We are in this boat together and it is a hazardous mistake to think the oppression of those who are “really disabled” is not related to our own. The flip side to this point is that we need each other. Claiming a disabled identity and joining in solidarity with a larger disability community means that we can draw upon the resources of those who have been fighting discrimination for a very long time. Claiming a disabled identity means we can be part of a resistance against normalcy that is far bigger than stuttering.
Let me end with a story. Last year I was sitting on the bus when a person who was intellectually disabled (ID) mistook my stutter for me being ID. In the past—in fact, for much of my life—I would have been horrified that others around me would think I was ID and would have quickly distanced myself from being like her. But it is the same ableist attitude that says it’s shameful to be ID that says it is shameful to stutter. So this time, instead of distancing myself, I happily took the ensuing conversation as a moment of kinship and as an opportunity to disrupt the ableism that structures both of our experiences.