Stuttering and Society

For centuries stuttering has often featured prominently in both popular culture and in society at large. Because of the unusual-sounding speech that is produced, as well as the behaviors and attitudes that accompany a stutter, stuttering has frequently been a subject of scientific interest, curiosity, discrimination, and ridicule. Stuttering was, and essentially still is, a riddle with a long history of interest and speculation into its causes and cures. Stutterers can be traced back centuries to the likes of Demosthenes, Aesop, and Aristotle—some interpret a passage of the Bible to indicate Moses also to have been a stutterer. Misinformation and superstition have influenced society's perceptions of the causes and remedies of a stutter, as well as the intelligence and perceived disposition of people afflicted with the disorder.

Partly due to a perceived lack of intelligence because of his stutter, the man who became the Roman Emperor Claudius was initially shunned from the public eye and excluded from public office. This exclusion from public life suited his inclination towards the academic and gave him time for study. His infirmity is also thought to have saved him from the fate of many other Roman nobles during the purges of Tiberius and Caligula. By studying history, Claudius became very knowledgeable about governmental institutions, which later aided him as an emperor. Balbus Blaesiuse is another Roman who stuttered severely, so much that he became an "exhibit" in a freak show, where he was displayed locked in a cage. His last name, Blaesius, is now the Italian word for stuttering. Issac Newton, the famous English scientist who developed the law of gravity, also had a stutter. Other famous Englishmen who stammered were King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the UK through World War II. Although George VI went through years of speech therapy for his stammer, Churchill thought that his own mild stutter added an interesting element to his voice: "Sometimes a slight and not unpleasing stammer or impediment has been of some assistance in securing the attention of the audience…

For centuries "cures" such as speaking with a pebble in the mouth (as per the legendary orator Demosthenes), consistently drinking water from a snail shell for the rest of one's life, "hitting a stutterer in the face when the weather is cloudy", strengthening the tongue as a muscle, and various herbal remedies were often used strengthening the tongue as a muscle, and various herbal remedies were often used, clearly to little effect.

Similarly, in the past people have subscribed to various theories about the causes of stuttering which today one might consider odd. Proposed causes of stuttering have included tickling an infant too much, eating improperly during breastfeeding, allowing an infant to look in the mirror, cutting a child's hair before the child spoke his or her first words, having too small a tongue, or the "work of the devil."

Roman physicians attributed stuttering to an imbalance of the four bodily humors: yellow bile, blood, black bile, and phlegm. Humoral manipulation continued to be a dominant treatment for stuttering until the eighteenth century. Italian pathologist Giovanni Morgagni attributed stuttering to deviations in the hyoid bone, a conclusion he came to via autopsy. Later in the century, surgical intervention, via resection of a triangular wedge from the posterior tongue to prevent spasms of the tongue, was also tried.

In more recent times, movies such as A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and A Family Thing (1996) have dealt with contemporary reactions to and portrayals of stuttering. In A Fish Called Wanda, a lead character, played by Michael Palin, has a severe stutter and low self-esteem. His character—who is socially awkward, nervous, an animal lover, and reclusive—portrays a prevalent stereotypical image of stutterers. The three other characters in the movie generally make up the spectrum of reactions to stuttering: Jamie Lee Curtis's character is sympathetic and sees past it, John Cleese's character is polite but indifferent, and Kevin Kline's is malicious and sadistic. Upon release the film caused controversy among some stutterers who disliked the film for its portrayal of Palin's character as a pushover amid the bullying his character receives, and received favor from others who valued the film for showing the difficulties stutterers commonly face. Palin, whose father was a stutterer, stated that in playing the role he intended to show how difficult and painful stuttering can be. He also donated to various stuttering-related causes and later founded the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in London.

The 1983 movie The Right Stuff referenced the real-life stuttering problem of John Glenn's wife Annie, and how it rendered her fearful and unwilling to do a news conference during his initial space flight. As he reported in his autobiography, John Glenn: A Memoir, and as shown on-screen in The Right Stuff, her stuttering was never a problem between the two of them, he "just thought of it as something Annie did". But she grew frustrated with it, and some years later put herself through intense speech therapy to largely overcome it. A proud moment for the both of them was the first public speech she gave on her experiences as a stutterer.

Though a stutterer might seem to be an unlikely radio star, Howard Stern hired a stutterer sight unseen ("He stutters? Hire him.") to conduct celebrity interviews. Known on the Stern show as Stuttering John, John Melendez worked for Stern for 15 years before taking a position as the announcer on The Tonight Show. Howard Stern also has a collection of frequent guests, many of whom have speech impediments of some type; while their afflictions are exploited for comedic purposes, members of "The Wack Pack" are well-loved by Howard Stern and his fans.

In addition to personal feelings of shame or anxiety, outside discrimination is still a significant problem for stutterers. The vast majority of stutterers experience or have experienced bullying, harassment, or ridicule to some degree during their school years, with this trend often carrying over into the workplace. Stuttering is legally classified as a disability in many parts of the world, affording stutterers the same protection from wrongful discrimination as for people with other disabilities. The UK Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 both specifically protect stutterers from wrongful dismissal or discrimination.

Along with disability legislation, many stutterer rights groups have formed to address these issues. One interesting example is the Turkish Association of Disabled Persons, which successfully appealed to the major Turkish telephone company Telsim, resulting in reduced rates for people with stutters or other speech disabilities because of the additional time it takes them to converse on the telephone. Also, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution in May 1988 designating the second week of May as Stuttering Awareness Week, while International Stuttering Awareness Day is held internationally on October 22.

Even though public awareness of stuttering has improved markedly over the years, misconceptions are still very common, usually reinforced by inaccurate media portrayals of stuttering and by various folk myths. A 2002 study focusing on college-age students and conducted by University of Minnesota Duluth found that a large majority viewed the cause of stuttering as either nervousness or low self-confidence, and many recommended "slowing down" as the best course of action for recovery. Many parents of children who have or are suspected to have a stutter still erroneously subscribe to the belief that ignoring the speech problem is the surest way toward rehabilitation. While these misconceptions are damaging, groups and organizations are making significant progress towards a greater public awareness.