Universal struggle

Ahead of Stuttering Awareness Week, advocates have one salient message to impart to other stutterers: You are not alone.

New-York native and stuttering activist Jacquelyn Revere speaks with members of the Israel Stuttering Association while visiting Jerusalem. (photo credit: COURTESY JACQUELYN REVERE)
New-York native and stuttering activist Jacquelyn Revere speaks with members of the Israel Stuttering Association while visiting Jerusalem.
We’ve all been there.
We’re expected to give a presentation in front of our bosses, deliver a speech before a crowd, or even in the most everyday necessity of dating, ask someone out for that very first date.
What one hopes to say is carefully rehearsed and rehashed over and over again. But when the moment comes to deliver the goods, they fall, stumble, stammer or stutter over their words, and the person on the receiving end laughs.
For most people, these moments – while embarrassing – are fleeting, and we ultimately get over them.
For People Who Stutter (PWS), those moments are habitual and haunting, and can make up the bulk of their interaction with others.
“When I tell someone that I stutter, the response I get 75 percent of the time is – ‘Oh, so do I!’ But then they’ll say, ‘When I’m talking in front of people or when I’m nervous,’” actress and stuttering advocate Jacquelyn Revere tells the Magazine in an interview over Skype. “I think having a stutter and stumbling are not the same, they don’t internalize it the way a person who stutters does. It doesn’t happen as frequently.”
Looking casual in a blue sweatshirt, the New York-based actress spoke frankly about growing up with stuttering and her activism on the subject, as well as her effort to get the word out on Israel’s third annual Stuttering Awareness Week, which will take place across the country beginning November 16.
According to Omri Lizpin, general manager of the volunteer-run Israel Stuttering Association (AMBI), the goal of the week is twofold: Raise awareness of stuttering, so parents and caregivers can help children who stutter, and help destigmatize the issue altogether.
“Sometimes when people stutter, they think they are mentally challenged or crazy. We want a world that understands stuttering,” Lizpin says, noting that roughly 70,000 Israelis are affected and, according to the Stuttering Foundation of America, 68 million people across the globe stutter.
While nobody is completely eloquent 100% of the time, Revere acknowledges that there’s a stark difference between people who stutter and everyone else. This is because at an early age, they are taught that they way they speak is wrong. “So, when you’re constantly hearing ‘Stop, slow down, stop, you’re talking too fast,’ you internalize that the way you speak is more important than the content.”
“[People who don’t stutter] don’t have the years of the emotional drudgery,” says Revere, pausing and laughing at her dramatic – but emotionally honest – phrasing of her feelings on the subject. “Those are such dramatic words, emotional drudgery,” she says, ruefully shaking her head but refusing to backtrack, because she firmly believes in the burden her speech impediment can cause.
Revere – or Stutter Girl, as she refers to herself in her blog and videos – is a charismatic figure whose dynamic presence and flare for words, despite her stutter, is palpable on-screen.
In September, she was invited by Jerusalem-based speech therapist Uri Schneider to come to Israel to talk about her videos in front of other speech pathologists and PWS.
During her whirlwind two-day trip that month, Revere noticed there was something particularly universal that tied her to other PWS across the globe. “With stuttering in a different language, you can see the exact same thoughts come into someone’s mind when they stutter that come into my own. It’s really something so universal; it transcends being able to speak Hebrew.”
“There’s something very specific,” she says. “When someone is about to stutter in front of people, you can see the feelings they’re feeling as it happens, especially if you felt that same way. You can just look in someone’s eyes and see what’s going through their head.”
Israel Stuttering Association volunteer Eytan Voss, 24, agrees with Revere’s observation. “On one hand, the physical part of it – the way you make a sound – doesn’t matter based on language.” Yet as someone who is bilingual, he believes the interplay between the two languages is a bit more nuanced.
“There’s a psychological game to it as well. In my case, I would be more scared of getting stuck, which would make me more nervous and cause me to stutter more. I can usually predict when I will get stuck. But then you’re so scared of your block, and you lose your confidence – therefore, in Hebrew, which I spoke more, I created more ‘tricks’ to try and avoid stuttering which changed my speech patterns” Another aspect that ties together PWS around the globe – in his view – is the difficulty in making a good first impression.
“Even to present yourself and your name can be a struggle [as a stutterer]. First impressions are very important, and that can be damaged,” he explains.
Revere agrees that the mundane act of introducing yourself to a stranger can be cumbersome. “When you introduce yourself, most stutterers stutter their name. It’s something that you have to say; you can’t switch out that word. Most people, like eight out of 10, their response is, ‘What? Did you forget your name?’” Revere says, recalling the usual dose of insensitivity she encounters on a daily basis.
Both Voss and Revere stuttered at a young age, but didn’t notice their stuttering until they were about nine years old; both ran the gamut of speech therapies in their adolescence.
For Voss, while the therapy helped reduce the frequency with which he stuttered, he found it did not help him in terms of self-confidence. “When I used their tools, it meant I had to speak very slowly and be aware of every vowel I used. It helped in the sense that I stuttered less, but it didn’t help me feel like myself.”
The Jerusalem-born-and-raised Voss reached a turning point of sorts after he received a scholarship from AMBI to attend a youth summit sponsored by the European League of Stuttering Associations in the Netherlands last summer.
Voss, a student at the Holon Institute of Technology, proclaims that his week-long trip changed his “whole outlook toward stuttering.”
“When I came back, I felt more calm and relaxed about my stutter. It gave me confidence to speak for myself, the fact that I met so many people from different worlds and cultures, when we basically have nothing in common; and yet, we still connected so fast and understood each other on a deeper level,” he says, reinforcing the notion that such a condition fosters a special global bond.
During the summit, Voss participated in several workshops where instructors (who also stutter) would engage students in improv-like activities so they could learn to speak in a more uninhibited way.
“They gave us tools for when we returned to our country, to help others, to know what to do, to learn about stuttering – what your body goes through. Just to meet other people who stutter was a big relief,” he explains.
Voss returned to Israel invigorated and determined to give back to the community. As such, he’s spent ample time working with AMBI to coordinate the upcoming Stuttering Awareness Week.
“There’s still a lot that could be done… and it’s always good to know what another person goes through,” Voss says, noting the importance of the week. It’s important to get the message across that there shouldn’t be any shame associated with stuttering, he adds.
Although hard to believe, until relatively recently, simply talking about stuttering was taboo.
“I received phone calls from older people who told me they never spoke about stuttering before and when they saw a newspaper article about the subject, they cried. They told me, ‘I can’t believe the issue is being spoken about,’” Lizpin says, recalling some of the positive feedback he received after the previous Stuttering Awareness Week.
Though not a staggering amount, over 500 total people are expected to attend the events in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba, to help spread that message to people who stutter and their friends and family members.
The biggest event is scheduled for November 16 in Tel Aviv, where renowned musician Yehuda Poliker will host a lecture and discuss his own childhood experiences with stuttering.
The week will also offer seminars on how stuttering affects relationships and the family, and will provide an open mic of sorts – so those who have never been on-stage or addressed an audience can do so openly, without fear.
In the Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech, we learn that even those in the highest ranks of society are susceptible to indiscriminate scorn and mocking. In reality, though, one needn’t be a member of royalty to overcome adversity.
Through public support, advocacy and a positive outlook, even mere mortals can come to terms with the biggest obstacles in their way.