December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities
Every Thursday evening as a teenager, I found myself on Marlene’s couch in her basement, which was a wide-open space with toys visibly sprawled across the floor. You might, however, be wondering why I was there or what this has to do with disability. Since I was about three years old, I’ve had a speech disability — specifically, a stutter, which involves the involuntary disruption of words, including pauses and other disfluencies. My stuttering usually manifested itself in terms of repetitions or prolongations: “My name is S-S-S-S-Samuel” or “Hhhhhello, hhhhow are you?”
Throughout my adolescence, Marlene was my speech-language pathologist who, as a rehabilitative professional, taught me techniques to manage my stuttering, such as diaphragmatic breathing and extending the first syllable of every word.
Historically, disability has been seen as a weakness, a deficiency, something to be pathologized and treated. I’ll admit that when I was growing up, this is how I viewed my speech disability; I wanted it to be fixed, treated, eliminated — I wanted to be “normal.” Eventually, I sought out Marlene and my perspectives surrounding disability started to change, and along with that my understanding of disability as a fluid, personal journey.
My Personal Journey
Throughout my teens, and even as a young adult, I felt like I wasn’t good enough and that because of my disability, people would also perceive me this way or overlook me all together.
My first summer internship in 2009 at a non-profit organization confirmed to me those fears. The organization’s regular receptionist was on vacation, which meant that the interns had to fill in. There were four of us, each taking shifts at the front desk, answering any calls that came in. My shift was about to begin, and I was nervous - sitting at the front desk and twirling a pen in my hand, I became overwhelmed with anxious thoughts. “What if someone calls and I have to talk?” What if I stutter?” What if the person on the other end reacts negatively?”
During my shift, I answered a call from a woman asking about donations. She had donated money to the organization, and wanted specifics about where her funds were going. I didn’t have all the answers that she was looking for and I started to get anxious, which made me stutter more, in turn she was starting to get impatient.
“Can you just transfer me to someone else?” she asked.
“Okay,” I replied. “Who would you like me to transfer you to?” I asked her politely.
“Anyone but you,” she said.
I proceeded to transfer her to a colleague and immediately left my post at the front desk, went to the closest bathroom, and broke down in tears. Looking back on the experience, I don’t know what bothered me more; was it how this faceless woman confirmed to me my worst fears about how people would perceive me and my stuttering? Or was it how I didn’t speak up for myself and advocate for my needs? At the time, I wasn’t open about my disability, and, because of that, I wasn’t advocating for myself or my needs.
Over the years, my perspective has changed, or rather, my perspectives have changed about myself, my stuttering, and my disability in general. With Marlene’s encouragement, I got involved in the stuttering and broader disability communities and this, in turn, prompted me to begin to accept my own stuttering.
This had a profound effect on me as I started to disclose my stuttering more in school and at work. This included not shying away from my disability, asking for accommodations when needed, and advocating for myself. Over time, I realized just how much I was limiting myself due to my own self-perceptions about myself and my disability. The more I disclosed my stuttering, the more I realized that most people look past it and the woman on the phone turned out to be an anomaly.
Identifying as Disabled
More recently, besides disclosing my stuttering, I began to identify as a disabled person. I always stuttered and I knew that, but in the past, I avoided it and saw it as something I happen to have — a characteristic if you will (I have brown hair, green eyes and I stutter) — and not necessarily a disability.
As I started to work in accessibility and take disability studies as part of my master’s degree program, my conceptualization surrounding my stuttering, disability, and identity deepened. This was around the onset of COVID, so people going on self-reflective journeys was quite common. In my case, I welcomed disability as part of my identity, which started to manifest as identifying as disabled in those employment equity forms when you fill out job applications.
I started to conceptualize disability as nothing more than a different way in which people such as myself communicate, learn, or navigate the world and the space in which we occupy. While nothing about my stuttering has necessarily changed, the shame is gone and the way I interpret my disability has become a meaningful part of my identity.
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Samuel Dunsiger is a guest writer featured in this blog.