Over 70 million people in the world stutter to some degree. Yet for something that affects the daily lives of so many people, not a whole lot is known for certain about what causes stuttering, what makes it get worse, or what makes it get better. As a result, there are many misconceptions about this condition. Stuttering does not come about because of psychological problems. Nor does it make us any less intelligent or capable than those who do not stammer. I, along with millions of others lead regular lives just like anyone else would.
James Earl Jones, the accomplished stage and screen actor, is famous for his roles as the voices of Darth Vader and Mufasa. But what is not as well known is that he had a debilitating stammer. In his autobiography, there is a quote about his experience with stammering that jumps out of the page and in my opinion, defines what stuttering becomes to so many:
“I think a stutterer ends up with a greater need to express himself, or perhaps, a greater awareness of the deep human need for expression. Being a mute or stutterer leaves you painfully aware of how you would like to say something. And I would know, as an afterthought, how I could have said this or that. But at the moment, you are too busy making the choice to speak or not to speak, to use this word or that word. The pain is in the reflection. The desire to speak builds and builds until it becomes part of your energy, your life force.”
James Earl Jones is hardly the only famous person to stutter. There is a very long list of people who live in the limelight who do not let stuttering prevent them from achieving their dreams, such as Emily Blunt, Ed Sheeran, and even Bruce Willis.
In my experience, stuttering is a speed bump. How large that speed bump is depends on the severity of the condition, but it is still a speed bump. It is something that sometimes makes us second-guess ourselves or prevents us from doing things we would like to do. But it doesn’t have to always be a speed bump. Just as much it can hurt, it can empower us to do great things as it has for countless others before us.
I have only recently begun to empower myself to achieve the heights I know are possible. The university I attend has a number of model diplomacy teams, all of which culminate in a trip to a conference, where the team represents a country in a simulation of various international organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, or in my case, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As one might expect, participating in this sort of conference requires a lot of public speaking. As I described in a previous article, public speaking is hard enough without a stammer.
But through my amazing teammates I came to not hesitate when having to speak in public. One of my teammates and dear friends told me that she, along with the rest of the team, saw me as an inspiration. She said everyone was so inspired that I was able to stand up and give amazing speeches and not let my stutter limit me. Part of me wanted to believe that it was just her being nice, but I took her words to heart, and it showed when we went to Washington, D.C. for our conference.
I got up to speak to my fellow delegates many times during that conference. I was not able to be completely fluent during each of my speeches, but I did it with the understanding that most who were listening might be inspired to at least some degree by my actions. But if I needed validation for my beliefs, I received it on the final day of the conference, when one of the coordinators pulled me aside and congratulated me on my speaking skills, telling me that I was one of the best speakers there. The compliment was an unexpected but very pleasant surprise, and it renewed my belief that I could achieve my full potential despite my stutter. And for all intents and purposes, I began to reach my full potential during that conference.
Stuttering is a strange disability. It can tear people down and at the same time raise them to new heights. It can dishearten us just as easily as it can elate. But as John Stossel once said, “The happiest stutterers, I learned, are those who are willing to stutter in front of others.”