CALIFORNIA COULD BE the first state in the nation to mark the second week of May as Stuttering Awareness Week.
Over 70 California legislators this month sponsored Assembly Bill 59, which supports the voices of people who stutter and recognizes the societal challenges they run into. The resolution unanimously passed in the Assembly and was on the Senate floor as of Monday.
An estimated 1 percent of the world’s population have a speech dysfluency characterized by repeated sounds, syllables or words called stuttering, including President Joe Biden.
In April, San Francisco supervisors unanimously passed a resolution that commemorated Stuttering Awareness Week for the second year, illuminated City Hall green on May 12 and urged the state to recognize the week as well.
Stuttering activists around the Bay Area are proudly reclaiming their stutter as a form of verbal diversity, not a disruption or judgment of character, with one big message — “let us speak.”
A podcaster speaks out for change
It’s been an eventful few years for stuttering activist Maya Chupkov. After she launched her podcast Proud Stutter in 2021, it was she who spearheaded stuttering awareness legislation in San Francisco and at the state Capitol.
Hailing from a communications and policy background, the San Francisco resident said she is advocating for a change in how we talk about stuttering in the best way she knows how — talking to her local representatives.
“Speaking with legislators who have so much power and such a platform to spread awareness — this is just one of the ways we can start shifting the narrative around stuttering,” Chupkov said.
Her podcast serves as a space for inspiration and advocacy for the stuttering community and its allies, featuring Bay Area events, stuttering resources and even a toolkit on how people can get stuttering awareness resolutions passed in their own communities.
Podcast topics include “coming out” as someone who stutters, dating with a stutter, deep dives into online stuttering communities and the lived experiences of people who stutter in a multitude of professions. A few previous guests who stutter: speech pathologists, parents, academics, artists and entertainers, among others.
Though each guest’s experience is different, she said there’s a common thread of people who stutter feeling lonely, isolated and misunderstood at some point in their lives, usually in their childhood.
Guests frequently talk about avoiding certain situations, like public speaking, classroom presentations or dating. In teaching others, she said she has learned so much about stuttering from the people she brings on her show.
“There’s just so many nuances to stuttering, and it intersects with race, class, education … so many other things. I’ve been able to discover a complex story arc of what it really means to be a stutterer in society, today,” Chupkov said.
“It’s definitely been a very healing experience for me,” she added.
“As people who stutter, it’s hard for us to communicate the way we want to, but our voice still matters, and we deserve being listened to.”Maya Chupkov, Proud Stutter podcaster
Chupkov had her doubts before starting her podcast. She didn’t know if a podcast by and for people who stutter would even be enjoyable to listen to. Finding NPR’s Life Kit was a major turning point for her, she said, because the show features experts that have speech dysfluencies, without mention of how they talk.
Through her medium, Chupkov said she is helping fill the gap in representing stuttering in media in a positive — or at least neutral — light, and combating some of the negative stereotypes portrayed in film and television. She stressed that stuttering does not mean someone is nervous or less competent, but rather just a different way of speaking.
“People still think of stuttering and what they saw in ‘Billy Madison’ or other films, they don’t realize that it’s actually something that we can’t control,” she said.
“As people who stutter, it’s hard for us to communicate the way we want to, but our voice still matters, and we deserve being listened to,” Chupkov said. “I hope that people can feel more comfortable in their own voice as we continue to build this verbal diversity movement and stuttering community.”
A comedian’s unfiltered takes on the interruptions
“Hi I’m Nina, and I stutter, so you’ll have to wait for all of my brilliant ideas.” That’s the way comedian Nina G, a woman who stutters, likes to introduce herself to a group of strangers.
“We’re not overcoming our stutters, we’re overcoming assholes,” she said.
G likes to use her comedy to elevate the conversation on disabilities and stuttering in a way that reflects on her experience without making stuttering “the butt of the joke,” she said.
“When I talk about stuttering — and it’s not the only thing I talk about — it’s more about the social interactions I deal with,” she said. “Because the stutter for me isn’t the problem, it’s other people’s reactions.”
In a way, it’s an outlet for her to say what she really thinks in the moments where people interrupt her, patronize her or give her the dreaded “look” — the twisted expression of confusion on non-stutterers’ faces when they hear someone stutter for the first time.
“You don’t think that the comedy community would be this bastion of safety, but it’s the one place that I feel my stuttering hasn’t been an issue,” she said.
G has been a comedy fan since childhood, and growing up with both dyslexia and stuttering, school was always a challenge. At age 11, she knew she wanted to be a comic, but it took years for her to get on stage and start doing standup herself.
“I didn’t think someone like me could do comedy, because I never saw anybody like me do comedy,” she said. “I thought the prerequisite was that you had to be fluid.”
“[T]he stutter for me isn’t the problem, it’s other people’s reactions.”Nina G
The dream died at age 17, until she attended a conference for people who stutter 13 years ago. She said finding the stuttering community has been a “catalyst for change” in her life, and inspired her to pursue her life-long dream of making people laugh for a living.
Coinciding with Stuttering Awareness Week, G released her first solo comedy album May 11, titled “Stutterer Interrupted,” recorded at the Alameda Comedy Club.
“I want to see more changes in the entertainment world, and I hope my album changes that, because our voices aren’t always heard,” she said. “Standup is an important art form, because it’s direct communication with the audience without a whole lot of subtlety in it.”
A filmmaker who’s ‘friends’ with her stutter
Filmmaker, writer and director of G’s comedy special Gina Chin-Davis has stuttered since the age of four. Rather than hiding it, she’s trying to make friends with her stutter.
“For a long time, I didn’t even know what my stutter sounded like because I was hiding it so deeply, using so many tricks and things,” she said.
Growing up in the ’90s, the only speech therapy Chin-Davis was exposed to was “fluency shaping,” which focuses on reducing or eliminating stuttering. She found that no amount of practice could stop her from stuttering entirely.
“It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I realized that I can’t completely stop stuttering, as much as I would like to,” Chin-Davis said. “This is going to be something that I’m going to have to live with and accept.”
What really helped her was taking “avoidance reduction therapy,” which she says encourages her to let out her stutter when it needs to happen, rather than trying to mask it and getting stuck for longer.
“I used to think of stuttering as something that would just hold me back from the things I wanted in life, and for that reason, I had to get rid of it,” she said. “Now I just see it as another part of myself that adds something to who I am.”
Acceptance had its growing pains. She said it can be hard to embrace being different in a way that many people take for granted — the way she talks.
But she said she has found strength in numbers, especially with other women who stutter. Her friendship with G led her to directing G’s comedy performance videos for her album, which will be released this summer.
“I really love her work, I think she’s really doing something positive and awesome for the stuttering community,” Chin-Davis said. “She stutters really openly, and through comedy, tells people how to treat people who stutter correctly in an artistic way.”
She said talking to other people who stutter helps her re-evaluate the areas of her life where she’s been “playing small.”
“It’s a real strange shift of perspective. It’s really nice to connect with people who get it, who understand how to communicate with you and do not finish your sentences.”
Her one piece of advice for friends and loved ones of those who stutter: “Don’t finish our sentences.” “Know that we have a lot to say, and this is just the way we talk,” she said. “It doesn’t make it less important.”
A Muni driver finds hope in the next generation
Dustin Wells is a Muni bus driver for the 5-Fulton bus route in San Francisco. He didn’t identify as someone who stutters for most of his life, but he has known that he has stuttered ever since he learned to talk.
His previous strategy was just to hide it by not speaking to other people.
“It’s a shame thing, like I didn’t want to admit that this is how I talk,” Wells said.
That only went so far. As a driver of a tourist-packed bus line, he frequently runs into visitors asking for directions. Sometimes it’s difficult to communicate to people who don’t speak much English that they’re traveling on the wrong line or direction when he begins to stutter.
“Cellphones have made that a lot easier now, because tourists can ask/type on their phones in their own language why they’re not at the spot they want to be at,” Wells said.
“I have to say though, nobody really gives me that look of horror, like there’s something wrong when I start to talk, and that’s something that’s changed a lot,” he added.
Wells ran into the stuttering community via Chupkov’s podcast. He still doesn’t outwardly claim he has a stutter in social situations, but seeing other people’s openness to their stutter has helped him accept his a little more.
“It’s nice to see someone who can navigate life without shame, and without feeling like there’s something defective. I think there’s less shame in stuttering now.”Dustin Wells, Muni driver
“I spent my whole life feeling like there was something terminally wrong with my very existence,” Wells said. “It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who has trouble speaking sometimes.”
Wells also has a teenage daughter who stutters who Wells says doesn’t think much about it. Stuttering can be genetic and run in people’s family history, according to various studies.
He said raising a daughter who stutters has made him come to terms with his own, and he reflected on the shame he used to feel about his stutter from his parents and the society around him.
“It’s nice to see someone who can navigate life without shame, and without feeling like there’s something defective,” he said. “I think there’s less shame in stuttering now.”
A speech therapist wants to empower others
Bailey Levis is a speech pathologist and educator who opened the Bay Area’s first specialty center for stuttering, called the West Coast Stuttering Center. As someone who stutters, his approach is to provide a more holistic approach to speech therapy, rather than making people feel that their stutter is something to fix.
“I had this realization that I want to help other people who stutter, and show that we don’t need to let stuttering make every decision for us,” he said.
Levis said people who stutter face two main obstacles — the physical ability to speak, and the emotional toll that stuttering imposes. No matter the level of ease of speaking fluidly, the feelings of embarrassment and hopelessness surrounding stuttering significantly alters the course of people’s lives, he said.
“It’s everything from what to name your child or pets, to what streets you’ll live on,” Levis said, as some people who stutter are conditioned to avoid words they know they’ll get stuck on.
Levis said the anticipation of stuttering alone can bring about a flight or fight response in people’s nervous systems, which only makes it more difficult to manage speech. Much of that comes from prolonged past trauma, like getting teased and shunned by peers.
His goal is to ease people into a more relaxed phase and heal some of those fears engrained in them, in order to support them becoming “confident and competent communicators,” regardless of how much they stutter.
“I’ve been working on these emotional pieces and working from this trauma-informed perspective, and it can reduce the amount of struggle and tension, which can reduce the frequency that stutters show up,” he said. “But most importantly, that anticipatory fear is a whole lot less.”
Levis said stuttering awareness efforts are important, not only to make non-stutterers aware, but to let people who stutter know that they are not alone. Sometimes having community can do more for someone than speech therapy can ever do, he said.
“I like to think that we’re a pretty elite group,” he said. “I’m grateful for my stutter in that regard, just to know so many people and to become instant best friends with people because of the shared lived experience. It’s pretty special.”