To stammer is to speak with sudden involuntary pauses and a tendency to repeat the initial letters of words. I have had a stammer ever since I started speaking. Over time, I have made certain stylistic alterations in my speech to reduce the occurrence of a stammer. In this process, I have learned that people who stammer are complex individuals. We can be active participants at conferences and other public speaking platforms, and at the same time, we can struggle to pronounce our name on a phone call. We can be writers, leaders and excellent communicators, and at the same time, we can recoil at the sound of certain syllables. It is very normal for a Person Who Stammers (PWS) to be two things at once.
I never considered my stammer to be a disability because I never found it to be debilitating or limiting. However, everybody stammers differently and it is our collective experiences that hold significance and guide social discourse. In certain circumstances, a stammer needs to be addressed as a disability that requires as much attention as visible disabilities do.
Over time, I have noticed certain parallels between stammering and institutional as well as interpersonal oppression. And, the most frightening part is, this kind of oppression is easily internalised through self-deprecating justifications. From offices to classrooms to coffee tables, an implicit form of ableism is consistently promoted. Ableism is a form of discrimination that favours able-bodied people. However, the term has now incorporated mental health as well.
Within the South Asian community, a form of unrealisable perfectionism has fostered. This is particularly visible within academic spaces where disability is perceived through the lens of incapability, vulnerability, failure, and dependence. It is common for South Asian households to partake in sympathetic conversations around disability that often conclude on a condescending note. These conversations tend to celebrate privilege and regularly involve victim-blaming. In societies that value individuals on the basis of perfection, material success, and productivity, ableism is common and dignity is bargained.
In India, ableism is often compounded with other forms of discrimination, such as casteism, colourism, and sexism. And, these ableist narratives that pervade the workplace, society and even the constitution pose disproportionately graver consequences for certain communities, such as women and women belonging to conventionally lower caste communities.
Stammering and sexism share a very nuanced relationship. Women who stammer are victims of a form of dual discrimination in patriarchal and ableist societies. Hence, there is an ingredient of intersectionality as to how society responds to a stammer. Women face continual tone-policing, which leads to a greater amount of marginalisation due to their stammer. Internalised misogyny and systemic sexism have also not proven to be very helpful in the promotion of the disability rights of women. In the corporate corridors and the political arena, women are not expected to be leaders and when they do find themselves in a position of leadership, they face additional barriers. These barriers have an aggravated impact on women who have a disability.
Even academic institutions participate in sexist pedagogy because of which male students who stammer are nurtured and supported, while female students who stammer are often neglected. Added to that, men and women respond differently to any anxiety and agony stemming from dysfluency. While men tend to be more vocal and aggressive about it, women tend to go into a shell. This further complicates the process of seeking help, since stammering, being an invisible disability, becomes entirely latent if the PWS does not engage in dialogue. And, the need for a PWS to engage in active dialogue is aggravated by the fact that India has inadequate healthcare infrastructure, particularly with respect to mental disorders. Hence, unless a PWS or a person with an invisible disability addresses the issue themselves, diagnosis and medical remedy are practically unreachable. In India, healthcare infrastructure has failed people with mental disorders time and again.
School counsellors regularly overlook female students who might need help. And, the statistic claiming that men are five times more likely to stutter than women has only strengthened this practice. Women who stammer are pushed into the disability closet and compelled to express shame about their disability. Women have recurrently been encouraged to feel a sense of inferiority and the opposition to such misdirected encouragement is evident from the social reform movements of today. Body neutrality, self-care, pro-choice, and radical feminism are a few movements that have actively advocated for acceptance.
At schools, female students are asked to suppress their stammer by forcefully avoiding expression and communication at times. This is a form of intellectual and emotional abuse. A stammer is often taken seriously when it comes from a man since it can hinder communication and decelerate personality development, which will eventually cut down his career prospects because of the ableist recruitment policies of capitalist organisations. Ironically, the ableism that exists within offices is indirectly supplemented by the benevolent ableism within academic spaces. On the other side, when a woman stammers, it is dismissed as a symptom of underlying timidity which is viewed to be a feminine attribute. This notion is pushed ahead by the fact that personality, profession, and prosperity are never seen as priorities when the person concerned is a woman.
Hence, the only option left for women who stammer is to disallow their stammer from becoming a hindrance in their professional growth and when women do so, it is labelled as radical, unsanctioned, or pointless. All these complications make it much easier for men to overcome a stammer. This kind of disproportionate treatment also places men in a better position to combat the consequences of a stammer. There is a need to account for the compounded discrimination faced by the disabled, due to their sexual orientation, caste, class, and age. Ableism often adds to already existent forms of discrimination, which are often so nuanced that the struggles of those who face dual discrimination does not become a part of mainstream discourse.
In Indian society, with its deeply-rooted systems of casteism and Brahmanical patriarchy, it is no surprise that Dalit women are likely to face relatively greater repercussions of speech impediments. Within the Dalit community, medical support for invisible disabilities is often unavailable, inaccessible, or unaffordable due to the social ostracisation, indebtedness, and political precariousness faced by the community. The rampant discrimination against the Dalit community has deprived the community of essential financial, medical, and educational resources, thus making it significantly tougher for them to seek support and counselling for invisible disabilities, particularly mental health disorders which are often viewed as an ‘urban issue.’
When the community lacks resources to fund medication for visible illnesses, invisible and internal ailments will go unattended. And, this will eventually cripple their ability to seek employment and steady incomes, which will again force them into the marginalised position that they came from. It is a politically-motivated unending cycle of deprivation. A lack of access to necessary education and welfare services will only make them more and more deprived of these resources. Poverty is indeed not a choice, but a consequence of social structure.
There is hidden apartheid in India. Caste-based discrimination transcends public authorities and governmental institutions, it is visible even in the treatment of a Dalit person by the police and discrimination in the provision of disaster relief. The condition of Dalit communities in India is nearly as severe as the condition of African-American people in the United States, however, it is rarely brought up in discussions surrounding institutional discrimination. The reservation system has not resolved casteism and neither will the upcoming notion of ‘castelessness.’ There is a disparity in access to services, justice mechanisms, and even healthcare facilities. In India, the unavailability of mental health specialists is a reality that clearly has a greater bearing on the marginalised and the dispossessed.
Therefore, if we seek to counter ableism today, we will have to simultaneously counter sexism, classism, casteism, ageism, and other forms of oppression that act in coordination with ableism. Today, if we want to eradicate the ableist narrative that is peddled by capitalist organisations and bigoted individuals, we will have to analyse recruitment policies, workplace accessibility, artistic representation, social perception, insensitive comedy, conventions, and legislations.
The office is the place where implicit bias, stigma and stereotypes become increasingly evident. While gender-based discrimination and class-based discrimination have contended sufficiently, ableism still goes unchecked. Ableist narratives are common at the workplace, often fuelled by a productivity-driven, capitalist agenda that actively sidelines the fact that most of the disabled community can still make for efficient employees provided they are given a position in the organisation that empowers them to do work that falls under their capability.
For instance, a PWS is not someone who cannot partake in communication-oriented work. On the contrary, most people who stammer have a very nuanced and holistic understanding of communication since we have spent a considerable portion of our lives in silent observation. Hence, even a PWS can be engaged in vocations such as marketing, as long as the workplace is supportive of their disability. However, it is fairly common for a PWS to face discrimination even while being recruited.
Apart from hindrances during recruitment, people with a disability often get caught in the “assistant trap.” It is important to understand that not promoting employees because of their disfluency and despite their performance is blatant injustice. However, in the workplace, discriminatory behaviour is aggravated by societal predispositions.
A study by Dr Clare Butler of Newcastle University Business School found that every one of the 36 men who were interviewed experienced “routine discrimination” at the hands of employers. What you must note here is that none of the participants in the interview were women. Further, a number of capitalist organisations have an ableist recruitment policy, which deploys insensitive language towards people with a disability and a critique of such language is often unwelcome.
It is important to understand that language shapes behaviours and behaviours play a role in constructing systems of oppression. Hence, derogatory language paves the way for casual discrimination by normalising derisive references to the disabled. Even notions which imply that disability is inherently detrimental and that people with a disability are dependent and in constant need of unsolicited help, a veiled form of ableism is promoted. It is important to understand that the workplace atmosphere will have to evolve in order to maximise employee potential and create an inclusive space for a diverse workforce, which includes people with disabilities, people with a hyphenated identity, non-binary individuals, and women, among others.
A number of disabled individuals are misrepresented within society. We find ourselves being represented on stage, on screen, and on paper through insensitive descriptions and storylines. Cinema has recurrently depicted people who stammer in an inappropriate light. A stammer has been used to evoke humour or it has been used as a tool to merely decorate a character’s personality. A stammer is not something that should be used for character development because such usage is inherently ableist and derogatory. In films, a PWS is shown to use self-deprecating humour. This kind of representation has only pushed the disabled back into the disability closet.
The people who used to speak freely about their impairment have been made to question if they should continue doing so since the characters in these films are ashamed of the vulnerability that comes with disclosure. This has led to self-stigma. Certain films have attempted to associate a stammer with a lack of intelligence. However, such a portrayal could not be farther from the truth. Further, films have often appropriated the struggles of a PWS and given those struggles a comical undertone. By doing so, the film industry has merely normalised the mockery and humiliation faced by those who stammer. It is alarming how mocking a PWS continues to be a socially acceptable practice.
Hence, we collectively need to change how we respond to stammering. It is not okay to deride, humiliate, or question a PWS, especially with an ulterior motive. Even humour that uses statements such as “Did I stutter?” to infer a supposed disclarity in the speaker’s speech is an example of derogatory humour. We need to dissociate from such insensitive comedy. We, as a society, need to create an environment that is conducive for the disabled. We need to stop misrepresenting people who stammer, for the sake of superficial art and capitalist propaganda about inclusivity. We need to stop casting actors who do not stammer as characters who stammer. There are a number of actors who stammer and it would do no harm to cast them in such roles. This is what representation is. Using a stammer to compound a character’s personality and then asking an abled person to play that character, is appropriation.
In India, the only law that protects the disabled from discrimination in the workplace is the ‘Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights, and Full Participation) Act’ in 1995. Additionally, India has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, under the act, only the following categories of disability are protected:
2) Low vision;
4) Hearing impairment;
5) Locomotor disability;
6) Mental retardation, and
7) Mental illness.
The law does not cover speech disorders, despite the fact that they are very prevalent and generally treatable. This places a PWS in a place of insecurity since there is no legal framework that directly accounts for the discrimination faced due to speech disorders. The law needs to be amended. The law should specifically incorporate a category for speech impediments, albeit stammering qualifies as a pathological illness in certain situations, speech impairments also constitute a separate section under disability.
Collectively and unanimously, we must change society, we must also advocate for change in the workplace, the law, and the system as a whole. We must change our behaviour towards people who stammer and enhance our understanding of invisible disabilities. We must understand that by altering our perception and approach, we have the power to change the lives of multiple people.
A shift in thought process will force the art industry and the constitution to incorporate changes as well, which will directly remove the barriers that are faced by people who stammer. It is a step-by-step process and it is a long journey, but it is high time we started.
Note: This article was originally published on Brown Girl Magazine.