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Study could help end discrimination against people who stutter

Stuttering can be debilitating and frustrating. This is something Dr Dane Isaacs knows all too well.

“Growing up with a stutter has not been the easiest experience. I have been bullied, discriminated against and endured various social and psychological challenges,” says Isaacs.

“My stutter has also had a negative impact on my masculine identity. As a man who stutters, I have often felt weak, emasculated and not being able to live up to society’s expectation of what it means to be a man. These experiences have always left me wondering about the disabling and masculinity experience of people who stutter.”

Despite these challenges, Isaacs, who is a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council, has managed to reach the pinnacle of academic success when he recently obtained his doctorate in Psychology at Stellenbosch University. His study explored the disabling and masculinity experiences of young adult men who stutter.

As part of his research, Isaacs described his own experience of discrimination, oppression and disablement at church, school, university and in the workplace (autoethnography). He also conducted interviews and held focus group discussions with young adult men (aged 20-39 years) from Cape Town and Stellenbosch who stutter to learn more about their disabling and masculinity experiences.

Vulnerable

Isaacs says his findings showed that these men predominately drew on hegemonic or dominant norms and practices of masculinities to construct their own masculine identities.

“For them, being a man typically involved occupying a position of power and control, being the provider, being heterosexual and exerting physical strength. Several men perceived stuttering to be in direct contradiction to what it meant to be a man. For them, the exercise of control over speech denoted manliness.”

“As a result, they commonly reported a reduced self-esteem and self-confidence, and feeling weak, vulnerable, emasculated and shameful as men who stutter. For some, the marginalised position they occupied as men who stutter motivated them to gain control over their stutter and improve their performance of hegemonic masculinities. For others, the marginalised position of stuttering resulted in them rejecting dominant ideas of masculinities and constructing masculine identities accepting of their stutter.”

Isaacs adds that some of the men (students who had a severe stutter) believed that stuttering was a disability. “They shared experiences of emasculation, disablement and oppression, and were strong advocates for the disability rights of people who stutter.”

He says although young professionals agreed that stuttering is a disability, they did not see themselves as disabled men.

“Interestingly, some of these men reported being disabled by their stutter earlier in life. However, the fact that they could exercise control over their stutter and achieve career success, allowed them to reject the identity of a disabled man, which they typically associated with weakness and vulnerability.  “They also rejected the idea of advocating for reasonable accommodation for people who stutter in the workplace.”

Isaacs mentions that some men completely rejected the idea of stuttering as a disability and believed it was a developmental speech disorder that can be controlled with proper techniques.

According to Isaacs, three things fuel the discrimination and oppression that these men and other people who stutter experience.

He explains:

Firstly, it is ignorance and myths about stuttering.”

Secondly, it’s the dominant view of stuttering as a speech production disorder that can be fixed, managed or controlled. By viewing stuttering in this way, the responsibility of stuttering is placed solely on the individual who stutter, while society’s role in this oppression and discrimination remains hidden and unaddressed.”

Thirdly, people who stutter also discriminate against and oppress each other. When rejecting the identity of a disabled man, people who stutter are hesitant to advocate for the disability rights of others just like them and to address the challenges they all face.”

Support

Isaacs says more should be done to support people who stutter. They should not merely be accommodated but should be treated as valuable members of society.

“Although there are associations and support and self-help groups that aim to ensure the full participation of people who stutter in all spheres of society, many of these organisations focus primarily on fixing, managing or controlling of stuttering instead of addressing issues of disablement, discrimination and oppression.

We should design policies that promote the needs and disability rights of people who stutter and allow them to participate fully in educational spaces (schools, universities) and the workplace as these are some of the most oppressive and disabling places for them. They should also be consulted in the design of policies, programmes, courses and curriculums aimed at ensuring their full participation.”

Isaacs adds that a disability studies approach should become part of speech-language therapy.

“I believe that the full participation of people who stutter will only occur if stuttering is approached through a disability studies lens. Attention will be directed to the social and political aspects of stuttering, which is important for addressing the oppression, disablement and discrimination encountered by people who stutter.”

Isaacs say he will continue to explore innovative ways to promote the disability rights of people who stutter. “I am determined to see the discrimination and oppression of people who stutter eradicated in my lifetime.”

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