This question comes up a lot. After all, there are entire academic disciplines and professions devoted to understanding stuttering scientifically. The race is on, for example, to find the "stuttering gene" and to understand how the stuttering brain is different than a "normal brain" (the blog the stuttering brain is a prime example). I am not denying that stuttering can be mapped in the brain (although I am highly sceptical that a stuttering gene will ever be found), nor that it has some physiological causes. However, I do believe these are by far the least interesting and important questions we need to be asking about stuttering and communication disabilities.
We intend to explore the history of disability activism in the future on this blog, but for now, consider that disability activists and scholars have been arguing persuasively for over 40 years that what we call "disability" cannot be located only in the body. Rather, disability is a complex interaction between bodies, cultural values, architecture, and social/economic structures. To take a famous thought experiment, who would be "disabled" if every building was designed for wheelchairs instead of for those who walk upright? In such a world those who walk rather than wheel would be disadvantaged or "disabled," hunched over through hallways and hitting their heads. No one is arguing that being paralysed doesn't have biological and physiological causes. Rather, activists and scholars are insisting that "disability" goes far beyond these bodily differences, and results from the social barriers set up by a world that is not designed to meet our needs. If we can think outside of medical models for a minute, disability reveals a lot about how our society is structured: which bodies we think are important, who gets to be heard and why, how time is supposed to be used, and what our bodies are supposed to be used for.
If this work has been going on for over 40 years, why has it taken so long for discussions of stuttering to catch up? The medical and scientific conversations that frame stuttering as an individual and biological defect come from a very particular way of seeing the world. This medical view of the world is certainly useful in some circumstances (if I go for heart surgery, for example, I want to be sure that the surgeon knows what she's doing), but this is not the only, nor the best, way of viewing the world and our bodies. The scientific and medical conversations about stuttering need to be analysed from a social perspective that focuses on justice and rights, and seeks to understand how our societies are set up to value some speaking bodies and devalue, stigmatize, and pathologize others. Our world privileges able-bodiedness, and the medical/scientific view of the world only reinforces these values. This view does not help those of us who stutter; instead, it leads to impossible expectations, stigmatization, and shame. We have to believe that these social values and structures can change, and that we together can make these changes.