I’d become so successfully covert that the idea that I stuttered sounded more like an unfounded opinion than an incontestable truth.
This is , a column by Sophia Stewart on stuttering, self-understanding, and disability in private and public spheres. dis/fluent
Ask any person who stutters and they’ll likely tell you something similar: In the days and hours and minutes before certain verbal interactions, we strategize. Maneuvering a world designed without us in mind requires constant preparing, gauging, dodging, adjusting. We figure out how we might limit our exposure or avoid detection—if and how we can pass as fluent.
Tonight, I’m walking to a dinner party, where attendance will be one-third friends, two-thirds strangers. It’s a breezy Brooklyn evening, and fresh mounds of snow on the sidewalk muffle the city sounds. The quiet is conducive to the preparty deliberation I need to do. First, I draw a probability tree inside my head. Probability trees, for those fortunate enough to have never studied statistics, are diagrams that assess the possible outcomes of a single event. Outcomes sprout from other outcomes and grow like bifurcating branches. My tree considers first the most pressing uncertainty of any stutterer: Will I be fluent or disfluent?
I consider some of the factors at play. Do I know the person I’m about to speak to? If so, how well? Is the person older than me or younger? What is the power dynamic between us? The purpose or topic of our conversation? Are we speaking in English or Spanish? Over the phone or in person? If in person, how far is the physical distance between us? What is the time of day? How is the weather? The tree’s branches split accordingly. Tonight, the outcome leans disfluent .
The question of passing has long troubled people marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, religion, and disability. In his 1963 book Stigma , sociologist Erving Goffman defines passing as “the management of undisclosed discrediting information about self.” Goffman’s word discrediting lays bare the impetus for passing: Certain identities can sully reputations and erode respect. Many pass to preserve their dignity or to protect themselves, but one can also experience passing as an expression of self-hatred.
Despite implicit, ubiquitous expectations of able-bodiedness, I’ve never felt pressure from parents or speech therapists to be fluent or to pass. The older I get, the less I myself care about being found out as disfluent. I do, however, care enormously about being perceived as smart. Early in my life I realized I wouldn’t be pretty or funny or athletic, but I knew I was smart, and I needed people to think so too. And once I gleaned that intelligence was linked inextricably to verbal facility—to eloquence and quick-wittedness, to oratorical performance—I knew being fluent (or at least seeming fluent) became imperative. Tonight, I want these people, friends and strangers alike, to see I’m smart. Even now, I feel it’s all I have.
I decide that I’ll try to pass at the dinner party. I don’t want to call to attention that I’m defective. I can’t let disfluency hijack the first impression I make.
In the stuttering community, those of us who can pass as fluent are called “covert.” Covert stutterers are privileged; we are also usually terrified of being found out. The tactics of covert stuttering can range from sneaky (e.g. swapping out the tricky bilabial “movie” for the easier labiodental “film”) to phony (e.g. “forgetting” the name of my favorite actor because it starts with a challenging alveolar sibilant). It can also look like staying silent. But in some instances, keeping covert is impossible—introducing oneself, for instance, is a notoriously difficult task for many people who stutter. You can’t swap out or forget your name.
Covert stutterers are privileged; we are also usually terrified of being found out.
Many of us also come up against what scholar Jay Timothy Dolmage calls “disability drift,” or the assumption that a person with one disability is impacted in other ways or with other disabilities—a Deaf person, for instance, may be perceived to also have intellectual impairments. Confronting disability drift is a particular challenge for people who stutter, whose disfluency is taken as an indicator of not only mental deficiency, but also personality traits like shyness, nervousness, even duplicity.
But what makes passing so complicated for people who stutter is that it is not always purposeful. Because of natural fluctuations in fluency, every stutterer experiences easier days and harder days. (A stuttering friend of mine taught me to dispose of the qualifiers “good” days and “bad” days; it is neither inherently good or bad to be fluent or disfluent, she said. It just is .) Depending on countless factors, as well as the general shifting sands of fluency, it may happen that during a certain interaction or throughout a certain day, I won’t stutter. Not by conscious effort, but as the result of fluency’s dynamic nature. Is this also “passing”? Surely not in the active sense—is there such a thing as passive passing ?
I passively passed for most of high school, but as my stuttering became more noticeable with age, I got more intentional about assimilating. My reasons were twofold: to preserve my reputation among teachers and peers, and to conserve energy. (Stuttering can be physically strenuous; the jaw contracts, the throat strains, the breath runs out.) With this more deliberate approach to passing, I managed to be convincingly covert for the remainder of high school. Sometimes too convincing.
About halfway through my junior year, a teacher of mine assigned an oral presentation that would count for nearly a quarter of our grade. Each student would deliver a twenty-minute speech in front of our thirty-person class. As she read through the assignment instructions, my stomach contracted and my chest grew tight. I knew I wouldn’t be able to give that speech fluently. The class time my disfluency would eat up, the ridicule it could prompt, the anxiety these possibilities might cause me over the course of the coming days and nights—it was a lot to risk, especially when I knew I could prove my mastery of the course content in other, nonverbal ways.
I approached her after class for a private conversation. She closed the door beside her desk, her heeled shoes clacking on the cold linoleum, and sat down across from me with her best active-listening face. I confided in her that I stuttered.
“No you don’t,” she responded reassuringly. Her sincerity took me aback. I’d said nothing that was up for debate. But I’d become so successfully covert that the idea that I stuttered sounded more like an unfounded opinion than an incontestable truth.
But I’d become so successfully covert that the idea that I stuttered sounded more like an unfounded opinion than an incontestable truth.
I provided the evidence I usually do to skeptics: that I’d seen a speech therapist for many years and learned strategies to mask my disfluency. My teacher seemed unconvinced, but she relented as if indulging my delusion. She agreed to let me write a paper in place of a presentation.
I’ve participated in this exchange countless times. Being told I don’t stutter is meant as a compliment. My listener is countering what they see as undue self-criticism. I picture a child struggling with onerous math homework. “I’m too stupid!” they sob, as a parent soothes them, “No you aren’t.” But by disclosing my stutter to my tenth-grade teacher, I wasn’t looking for comfort. I certainly didn’t want to be disproven. I was stating a fact, one that supported an argument for accommodation.
I didn’t feel comfortable formally requesting accommodations until I went to college and discovered the campus’s Disabled Students Program (DSP). The DSP offered various services and modes of support, championing an ethos of self-advocacy. With an extensive evaluation submitted by my speech therapist, I was enrolled in the program and granted accommodations for whichever classes necessitated them. Most importantly, I was able to set the terms of oral presentations and be excused from compulsory verbal participation. Entering a class armed with institutional protections felt good, but my professors, alerted to my situation, often treated me with patronizing, pitying niceness that I resented. In their classrooms, my codified disabled status obscured not just my identity but my intelligence.
Outside of class, I regularly flung myself into unfamiliar social situations, desperate to meet new people. Some stutterers like to “disclose” or “advertise” their stutters early on among strangers; I often find this awkward and clunky and a sure way to write myself off before I’ve even begun to speak. I decided, as I began my freshman year, that I wouldn’t disclose.
The results were mixed. One night, early in our quest to make friends, my roommate and I went to the faraway dorm of a new acquaintance. When we arrived at his room he introduced his two roommates, both lounging in beanbag chairs. One of them asked my name nonchalantly.
“Ssssssophia,” I said, lingering on the first s .
Our acquaintance launched into hearty laughter. “Oh my god, are you drunk right now?” he spat out, leaning closer to me.
I chuckled softly and made some course-correcting comment, determined to put up a brave front for my roommate. I stuck out the ensuing conversation for a few minutes, then excused myself to the restroom at the end of the hall.
After a walk of shame down the carpeted corridor, I slipped into the bathroom and froze in front of the mirror. I clutched the sink for support, feeling like I could crumble, and surrendered to a wave of quiet sobs.
I reminded myself that I didn’t care about being fluent—I accepted myself, I was enlightened in the way a good stutterer is supposed to be—but I was also a teenager in a foreign place looking for connection. All the self-acceptance and enlightenment in the world did little to protect me from the sting of derision. I must have been in the bathroom a while; my roommate eventually came looking for me. I can’t remember what we said to each other. I only remember a long, silent walk back to our dorm.
In the collegiate years that followed, and now as I navigate the postgrad world, an invitation to drinks has become my primary mode of forging friendship. At dark and crowded bars, otherwise kind and thoughtful peers make offhand comments that turn my skin cold. They tell stories about the time they “stuttered like an idiot” around a crush; to emphasize a point, they append it with, “Did I stutter?”; if I slip up in a moment of disfluency, they joke about how gone I clearly am or mimick the disfluency back to me—“W-w-what was that?”
In recent years, I’ve started to intervene more, with a casual “hey, this is how I talk,” and a brief explainer. But as an undergrad, I chronically laughed off these kinds of remarks and changed the subject. My drink partners’ intentions were not malicious, and I didn’t want to come off humorless. All stutterers know this compromise: We have what writer Durga Chew-Bose calls a “long-harvested ability to recoup, ignore, smile, move on.”
I’m a few blocks away from my friend’s place now. The breeze has turned to a blustering wind, and I reconsider my projected outcomes. If tonight I stutter blatantly, I’ll inevitably become a representative for all people who stutter. If I’m personable and likable enough, perhaps I can penetrate their prejudices, shatter their notions of who a stutterer can be. Righteously I think, I’ll prove our humanity! Send people home with changed hearts and minds!
Passing P.S. 305, I think of Miah, a covert member of my stuttering support group and a former elementary school teacher. She’d told us during a recent meeting about a set of parents who mentioned to her that their daughter struggled with stuttering. Miah had no idea.
“If I had been more open about my stutter, if I had stuttered more overtly,” she asked us, suppressing tears, “what could that have meant to her? What could that have done for her?”
“I feel guilty for passing,” another covert stutterer said. “I don’t want to betray stutterers. I don’t want to feel like I’m embarrassed of my stutter.”
“Take shame out of the equation,” I told her. “If you gotta pass, pass. If you’re gonna stutter, stutter. But shame has no place in either decision.”
It sounded so easy when I said it. It feels much harder right now, weighing my odds and predicting the results. Of course, when I’m among other people who stutter, the mental probability tree never takes root. I can speak freely; there are fewer decisions to make. I can save all this energy that I’ve just expended en route to a silly dinner party.
But because stutterers comprise just one percent of the adult population , I will almost always be the only person who stutters in any room I enter. The central task of a disabled person’s life, as author Wilfrid Sheed writes, is to “make the world, and ourselves, forget for as long and as often as possible that there has ever been anything wrong with us.” Passing can allow me to control my status among others, to decide how much power to cede in any given interaction. It’s negotiation, diplomacy, a preemptive measure.
My destination is in sight now, a crowded dining room illuminated through a large window. I will be the only stutterer there. Is that all I want to be? All I have to be? Either way, it’s what I am.
I knock on the door, and an unfamiliar face answers. They ask my name, and I tell them, surprised by the fluency with which I do. Maybe my calculations were wrong. Maybe this is a one-off. I’m exhausted by my own analysis. I go inside and take a seat with the rest of the party guests. I watch them, just talking, effortless.