Label-Makers

I’ve recently joined the Facebook group Stuttering Arena, and the other day I noticed a small sub-discussion about whether stuttering is a disability. It got me thinking, which of course led me to writing…

I don’t remember where I was when it struck me, but I do remember that there was a “bolt of lightning” moment, and that up until then, the idea that I could be classified as “disabled” had never occurred to me. Not once. Disabled meant you couldn’t walk, or see. That you had sustained a brain injury and were left with reduced cognitive function*. Not me. Not my stuttering…right?

It’s funny that I might worry about the stigma of being disabled, because it’s not like stuttering isn’t already stigmatized in its own right. I’m not going to claim that it’s the last remaining safe thing to openly mock or make fun of a person for; a quick jaunt around the internet will prove that wrong. Still, as any stutterer can attest, we’ve all seen the smirks, heard the “did I stutter” joke, and seen the stuttering character on TV portrayed as weak or evil. But disabled? That put it in a whole other category. It would not longer be something that I did, it would be part of who I was and how I was identified to the rest of the world.

But, logic (and law) eventually won out. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA**)defines a disability as:

  • (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
  • (B) a record of such an impairment; or
  • (C) being regarded as having such an impairment (as described in paragraph (3)).

Paragraph 3:

  • (A) An individual meets the requirement of being regarded as having such an impairment if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.
  • (B) Paragraph (1)(C) shall not apply to impairments that are transitory and minor. A transitory impairment is an impairment with an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less.

Speaking is a major life activity. From a courteous “hello” to speaking to a 911 operator to interviewing for a job or calling to set up cable tv, we are required to communicate orally on a daily basis. Stuttering can severely inhibit these (and countless other) interactions. Stuttering is (for the most part) not transitory.

I think I have a disability.  Other people (stutters and not) disagree. Some say it’s a condition, or just “part of who I am”.

Well, sure, but so is being blind or paralyzed. Those don’t define the person with those conditions either. I think the problem isn’t classifying stuttering as a disability, but rather being ok with having a disability. It means protection under the ADA. It means understanding that having a disability isn’t the end of the world and certainly doesn’t mean giving up on making it better.

But that’s just my opinion. And that’s the tricky part about stuttering. So much is uncertain- what causes it, what aggravates it, what helps it. Why we have good days and bad days. We’re sort of left to figure these things out for ourselves. So what do you think?

Also, check out another perspective on the subject.

*I am very, very hopeful that I’ m not causing offense to the (rest of the) disabled community with this post. I know it’s a touchy subject and if I’ve mis-represented any facts or been unknowingly glib or offensive about disabilities, please let me know and accept my sincere apologies.

**Ada is also the name of an awesome song on the album Boxer by the National. Get going and listen to it.

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