Actors Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and James Earl Jones have struggled with it.
So have golfing legend Tiger Woods, TV news commentator John Stossel, the late Fortune 500 tycoon Jack Welch, Britain’s King George VI and U.S. President Joe Biden.
Maya Chupkov’s on the list, too.
The 29-year-old San Francisco resident has stuttered since she was barely school-age, and in recognition of International Stuttering Awareness Day, Chupkov is launching her first podcast Friday.
About six months in the making, the bi-weekly series titled “Proud Stutter” will feature topics such as dating, raising a child with a stutter and how the media portrays stuttering — ideas inspired by the demographic it’s targeting.
“The podcast is really for us,” said Chupkov, who worked on the project with co-host and editor Cynthia Chin. “‘Proud Stutter’ is [intended] to be more about acceptance of our diversity in speech as opposed to putting this pressure on ourselves to be fluent.”
Nonetheless, society at large can benefit from the discussions as well, because it has only a rudimentary understanding of stuttering, she said.
Chupkov’s stammer was undetectable as she sat for an interview, but the fluency comes and goes, she said, and when she was a kindergartener, her speech impediment was severe.
She didn’t realize she was different from her schoolmates, however, until the bullying started a couple of years later, along with speech therapy. Chupkov didn’t understand at first why the school’s speech therapist was pulling her out of class for special treatment, but it wasn’t long before she became self-conscious.
“The worse part was having to read out loud,” she recalled. “I didn’t want people to know I had a stutter. I just wanted them to treat me like any other kid.”
Girls would run away from Chupkov at recess laughing; boys jokingly asked her why she couldn’t pronounce her name.
Chupkov began trying to hide her stutter in middle school by not speaking up as often in class and, when she was having an especially difficult time with her speech, avoiding friends at lunch — and even playing hooky.
As a high schooler, she had peers who would mimic her to make their friends laugh, and Chupkov chose extracurricular activities like volleyball that didn’t require her to talk as much.
Even so, the results were inconsistent; sometimes she would trip over words during a class presentation, and teachers would lower her grade, mistakenly thinking she hadn’t spent enough time preparing.
Chupkov longed to participate directly in the high school’s weekly TV broadcasts recounting the latest student body association activities but instead would give someone else her written updates to read on-air.
“I never was brave enough to do it,” she said.
But slowly, her life began to turn around.
When Chupkov entered college she finally met someone else who stuttered (“I just felt isolated — that no one really understood me [growing up]”), developed a circle of friends who accepted her and took courses where lectures — not class discussions — were the norm.
Even so, she didn’t enroll in the public speaking class she wanted to take, and because Chupkov was quieter around people she didn’t know well, others often assumed she was shy.
“Which is the opposite!” she said, noting that she loves meeting new people.
Hiding and coping
“Disfluencies,” as the repetitive sounds of stuttering are known, affect an estimated 1% of adults — men far more often than women — and range from barely noticeable to severe, according to the National Stuttering Association.
What’s more, stuttering can vary within individual speech from day to day; tiredness or stress might exacerbate someone’s disorder, as does trying to mask it.
Conversely, some like Chupkov become very adept at hiding their stammer.
“People don’t even realize that they’re interacting with a stutterer because covert stutterers often pass as fluent,” she said.
Even so, Chupkov finds her stammer reappears when she’s in a crowded meeting where she might have to speak off the cuff instead of delivering a PowerPoint presentation she has prepared.
The exact cause of stuttering is not known — theories point to multiple genetic and environmental factors — and a cure remains elusive.
Nor is there a one-size-fits-all therapy, and although most children eventually overcome the disorder, a minority stammer for a lifetime.
There are those who learn to manage their stuttering by substituting certain words for ones that are easier to pronounce; because Chupkov used to stumble over the “b” in “boyfriend,” she would introduce the man she was dating as her “partner.”
Some pause briefly before attempting a problem sound or syllable or use fillers such as “um” and “you know” to buy time.
Chupkov has come a long way toward making peace with her stutter, although she still catches herself using synonyms to play it down.
In addition to grappling with their own verbal landmines, people who stutter often experience hurt and frustration because others lack basic conversational etiquette.
Learning how to listen
For starters, listeners too often are influenced by the negative perception of stuttering that the entertainment industry perpetuates, said San Francisco Speech and Fluency Center founder Bailey Levis, who has a mild stammer himself.
“There’s a stigma that [we’re] not intelligent, that we speak faster than we think,” he said.
Others simply don’t know how to listen well, Levis said. “[Focus] on what the person is saying, not how they’re saying it.”
That means maintaining eye contact and suppressing the temptation to finish the speaker’s words or sentences, he said. Although those who interrupt typically are trying to be helpful when they hear the speaker getting stuck, they might guess incorrectly.
“Be patient and treat them like any other person. People who stutter are just regular people,” he added.
And that’s one of the messages Chupkov wants to convey with her podcast, hoping that in some small way it will help change the public perception of stuttering as an aberration to be overcome by encouraging the view that it’s just another style of talking.
“We should be focusing on what can be done to make us feel accepted in society,” she said.
“Proud Stutter” will air every other Friday. Listeners can tune into the first installment at proudstutter.com.