Struggling to be heard: What it’s like to be a student who stutters

Like all the occasions in which I stuttered badly, this one is forever ingrained in my memory. It was the beginning of the semester and a professor had just asked my name, when suddenly my vocal cords closed up.

In a moment that took all of five seconds but seemed to last an eternity, I found myself hissing like a snake: “S-S-S-S-S-Stefanie.” Embarrassment flooded over me in hot waves as my classmates exchanged glances and my teacher tried to look nonchalant. Shortly thereafter, I dropped the course because I didn’t like the professor’s teaching style — or so I told myself.

All through my life, I suffered from a speech impediment that ranged from an endearing Jimmy Stewart stammer to a full-out, cringe-inducing, Porky Pig stutter. I never knew when my speech would get better or worse. My first memory of stuttering in school was in the first grade, when I opened my mouth to read and nothing came out.

I couldn’t figure out what was happening. The boy who sat next to me, thinking I had lost my place, obligingly pointed out where we were — but I continued to stand there like a statue. Fortunately, my teacher realized the problem and didn’t rush me, and I eventually recovered my powers of speech.

School is hard enough for the average student, but for a person who stutters, it can be downright torture. Basic tasks like saying your name and using the phone become terrifying ordeals. Many students with this problem avoid speaking in class. For them, making a presentation can be a traumatic experience. When they leave school, they face discrimination in the workplace: More than 70% of people who stutter say it makes it harder for them to be hired or promoted, according to a 2004 study by the University of South Alabama.

In my experience, the worst thing about having a speech impediment is not the stutter itself, but the lack of understanding and acceptance. It’s commonly thought that someone stammers because he or she is nervous, talks too fast or is even mentally deficient. These are all unfortunate misconceptions. Although anxiety can worsen a stutter, the root cause is far more complex and has been linked to genetics, anatomical differences in the brain and deficits in auditory processing. In other words, stuttering is a physical condition, not a mental or emotional problem.

People who stutter are just as bright and capable as those who don’t, and their speech impediment is not in any way their fault.

I refused to let my stutter hold me back in school. In fact, I had great success in that arena, becoming valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School in New York City and graduating from Columbia University with the highest GPA in my class. I could usually hide that I had a stutter at all by substituting words I could say for those that gave me trouble. When I had to give my high school valedictory speech to more than a thousand people, I rehearsed it for days until I knew it by heart. I also tried different speech therapies in high school and college.

They helped a little, but I didn’t find one that really worked for me until after graduation, when I attended an intensive program at the Hollins Communication Research Institute in Roanoke, Va. In those two weeks, I essentially relearned how to speak, and I still practice the exercises I learned there every day. My speech is now fluent, but I don’t consider myself “cured” of stuttering — I’ve simply learned how to control it.

If you meet people who stutter, don’t tell them to slow down or relax and don’t try to complete their sentences. Believe me, if that’s all it took, no one would stutter! Be patient, and listen to what they are saying rather than how they say it. If you are a student who stutters, you may want to speak privately to your teacher about your needs and concerns.

If necessary, contact your school’s disability services for help. Remember: Your voice deserves to be heard, in the classroom and beyond!

By Stefanie Weissman/USA Today

For more information about the Stuttering Association for the Young visit:

Stefanie Weisman was valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School in New York City and graduated from Columbia University with the highest GPA in her class. She has a B.A. in history, a B.S. in computer science, and an M.A. in art history. She is the author of The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College . Follow Stefanie on her website or on Twitter @StefanieWeisman.