I was waiting in line at my bank’s drive-up service, hoping to make a quick withdrawal. I debated my options: two vacant service lines and one busy one for the ATM.
The decision was easy: Wait in the line and deal with a machine.
I have a speech disability – a stutter – and interactions with strangers have the potential to be, at the very least, extremely awkward; at worst, I have been mocked, insulted, misjudged or refused service. I avoid interacting with new people, fearful of their judgment. Using the ATM offered me more than just convenience.
But the ATM, I soon discovered, was going down for maintenance. I could either leave, returning on a day when the machine was back in service, or speak with a bank teller. Once again, I debated my options. I needed the cash and I was feeling optimistic, so I pulled into the service line.
I quickly rehearsed all acceptable variations of what I had to say: I need to withdraw some money from my checking account. Or maybe, to use fewer words: Could I have a withdrawal slip? Or straight to the point: Withdraw, please.
I pulled my car forward. Glancing at the teller, I took a deep breath and managed to blurt out: “Can I ppppplease make a wi-wi-with-with-withdrawal?”
The teller smiled on the other side of the glass. “Sure,” she said.
I wasn’t sure if she had noticed my stutter or simply believed my repetitions (rep-rep-repetitions) and prolongations (ppppprolongations) were just indications of being tongue-tied rather than manifestations of a persistent stutter. I eased back in my seat, trying to relax.
“What’s your name?” she asked, holding a withdrawal slip. I felt sweat form on my forehead. Nearly every person who stutters has difficulty saying their own name. No definite reason for this obstacle has been found, though most assume it’s because names don’t have substitutions you can reach for. When I’m explaining my vocation, for instance, I can call myself a writer, a freelancer, an essayist, a journalist or an author. A parade of synonyms to turn to.
But I have only one first and last name – especially at the bank, where there is no room for improvisation. I balled my hands into fists, ready to face the challenge: “Rachel Hoge,” I told myself. Just say, “Rachel Hoge.”
“RRRRRRRRRR. . .RRRRR . . . RRRRRR . . .,” I began, hoping I could power through, could force myself to make the word come out of my mouth. The teller seemed confused, squinting her eyes, leaning forward to better hear me.
“RRRRRRRR . . . RRRRRR . . . RRRRRRRRRR. . . RRRRRRRR.”
I felt my cheeks, my neck, grow red with shame. My jaw felt locked. Now that I was stuck on a sound indefinitely – stuttering on my name, of all things – the teller crossed her arms. She looked at me suspiciously.
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted, “but before any transaction can occur, you’ll need to come inside and provide a legal ID and Social Security number.”
Breathless and surprised, I managed to ask her why.
“For security purposes,” she said dismissively, straightening her back, still eyeing me. Slowly I pulled my car through. I didn’t go inside. Halfway home, I pulled into an empty parking lot and cried.
I’ve stuttered most of my life. At the age of 4 or 5, my mother brought me to the pediatrician and was told not to worry, I would outgrow the stutter. In hindsight, that advice might seem careless, but the pediatrician was right to make that assumption: Only 5 percent of children acquire a stutter, and three-quarters of those recover by late childhood.
What made my situation unusual was that my stutter was already severe when I was a young child, dominating my speech and causing me distress. And even though I received speech therapy in elementary school and, years later, in high school, I never recovered. I developed a lifelong disability and became one of the estimated 3 million Americans with a persistent stutter.
People who stutter experience an excessive amount of disfluency, or involuntary speech disruptions, stumbling over at least 10 percent of their words. (My percentage is much higher.)
My stutter can be mild to severe, depending on the environment, but it will never vanish. Most scientists believe that persistent stuttering is rooted in neurological defects and genetic disposition. Neither of these causes is something a person can change.
By my mid-20s, I had already experienced a lifetime of suspicion because of my stutter. Once, as a high school senior driving to speech therapy, a police officer pulled me over for speeding. After handing him my license and registration, he asked where I was headed. I took a deep breath, hoping to say: “I’m headed to my speech therapy appointment.” But all I could manage was 30 dreadful seconds of “I-I-I-I-I-I-I . . . ” The officer leaned into my car window and asked whether I was drunk. Surprised, I assured him that I wasn’t. He returned later holding a speeding citation, his eyes scanning my car’s interior, seeming to expect a can of beer to appear inside my cup holder.
Years later, at a wedding, my best friend and I were getting drinks. The bartender had already poured my friend’s drink before turning to me, asking my selection.
“Mmmmmmmm . . . mmmoscato,” I said. The bartender peered at us, her arms going stiff. “I’ll need to see both of your IDs,” she said loudly. Although we were 25 and accustomed to being carded, we both knew it wasn’t our youthful appearance that set the bartender on edge. It was my stutter.
I have an idea where this mistrust toward me and my disability comes from: There’s a myth that stuttering is a reflection of poor personal integrity. A writer in Psychology Today claimed that you can detect a liar by identifying variations in “tone, cadence, and sentence structure.” According to a listicle by the online site Thought Catalog, primary signs of lying include “stuttering and inconsistencies,” “not answering right away” and “repeating sentences.”
Both articles mention body language – such as facial expressions, head movements and eye contact – as clues about a person’s reliability and character. What these generalizations fail to recognize is that a variety of disabilities – stuttering among them – can affect a person’s vocalizations and physical movements. And although stuttering affects only 1 percent of the U.S. population, 19 percent of Americans are considered disabled and might have speech patterns or physical movements that others could consider odd. This means that if you judge a person’s personal integrity based on their spoken or physical language alone, you might be misjudging dramatically.
Thankfully, not all strangers are quick to judge. Sometimes I’ll meet someone who regards me with patience and not pity, with respect and not condemnation. I have found that this is a small group and usually the person knows someone else who stutters – an uncle, a cousin, a husband, a friend. These strangers are kind and uplifting to me, but ultimately they are too few and far between.
Lately, I’ve found solace in imagining a world where there is no longer a constant misreading of my stutter. I have faith this world is coming as more disability perspectives are read and shared widely. But awareness will be achieved only if people who stutter are willing to advocate for themselves, dispelling misconceptions in conversation, writing their unique perspectives and educating loved ones.
Meanwhile, fluent and able-bodied listeners need to acknowledge the misconceptions they’ve been exposed to, then discard them. It’s unacceptable to meet a stranger and automatically assume their spoken and physical attributes reveal something about their character, especially if that assumption is destructive or untrue.
For those of us living with speech disabilities, stuttering is not an indication of dishonesty. It’s an incurable disorder, and we have little power to control it.