Have you been seeing your friends post about #DDDetainedInAtlanta and wondering what it was about? Here is the CliffsNotes version of what happened to Kalamazoo College junior Kylah Simmons on her return home to the United States, and why I think her story is important to people who stutter (and just about everyone else).
Detained for Stuttering at the Atlanta Airport
On Thursday, January 21st, 2016, Ms. Simmons, an American citizen with a squeaky clean record, was coming back from a six month study abroad program. She flew into the Atlanta International Airport, and while going through customs she responded and stuttered on “Costa Rica” when asked where she was flying from. She was then brought to another officer who asked her “Do you have a problem?” to which she responded “I have a speech impediment and stutter.”
You would think that the story stopped there, but it didn’t. Ms. Simmons reported that she was then detained in another section of customs for approximately an hour and missed her flight home to her family. While she was detained, the customs officials said she was “lying and dishonest.” Like many of us who stutter, Ms. Simmons didn’t stutter on every word (all you fluent people see horrible examples of stuttering in the media-there is great variety in how we speak) and this made the officer detaining her suspicious. He also continued to call Ms. Simmons’ stuttering a problem, to which she responded (keeping her stuttering composure!) “My stuttering is not a problem; it is a personal challenge that I face.”
Upon being released, she reported what happened to her to the supervisor of US Customs and Border Protection, and followed up with a letter documenting her experience. Ms. Simmons has not heard a response from US Customs or the Atlanta International Airport and they have not responded to requests for comment from StutterTalk.com, where she told her story the next day. Ms. Simmons has stated that she doesn’t want anyone fired, but she would like the staff at the Atlanta Airport to have some training on communicating with a person who stutters, because she doesn’t want this to happen to others. This is because that is something many of us are afraid of. When her story came out so many of us who stutter responded with “This has been my fear realized.”
Why is it important that this happened at the Atlanta Airport?
In July there will be an international conference of people who stutter (combination of the International Stuttering Association and the National Stuttering Association) and guess where it is going to be? Atlanta! This means that likely over one thousand people who stutter will be going through the very airport that Ms. Simmons was detained in. The ATL will be up to their eyeballs in people who stutter and if they are going to detain us, they don’t have enough rooms! Plus, as an American who fights for Disability justice, I am proud of what my country has done on many Disability fronts and I want people from other countries to experience the freedom to have diverse speech and not meet discrimination because of it, especially hs they are entering and leaving the US. So, Atlanta Airport–especially customs–make us proud and get some training in how to talk to people who stutter! Come July, it will save you a lot of time and resources!
Support for Ms. Simmons
After Ms. Simmons told her story on StutterTalk.com, the host, Peter Reitzes, followed up with a second show where he interviewed Corporal Phil Peet, who offered some advice and guidelines for customs officials, demystifying the customs process for people who stutter.
A Twitter campaign was also launched to help educate ATL and the world about the need for training. People who stutter and their allies sounded off about what the Atlanta Airport and the world needs to know about stuttering. You can find it under #DDDetainedInAtlanta on Twitter. There were memes made, advice and opinions raised, and videos.
Call to Action
As with most issues there are little and big things you and the organizations you are associated with can do to help! Here are some suggestions:
- Call attention to this story and to the need to train customs officials, airport personnel, and even fire fighters and police on stuttering. There are many misconceptions about stuttering and we need to fight these head on, with accurate information along with concrete strategies regarding how to interact with people who stutter. Many of us stutter more around people of authority, when we are under stress or when we have to use precise language and words (like Costa Rica). We shouldn’t be suspect because of our speech, especially once we disclose that we stutter!
- Advocate within the organizations you belong to so that they can weigh in on this issue. It is the responsibility of professional organizations that focus on speech disability issues to also fight for our rights and independence. We don’t stutter in a bubble! We need the assistance of organizations like these to educate the public about speech disabilities, and take a stand when the rights of the people they aim to serve are being violated.
- Continue to educate your local and online communities about stuttering. Share articles, videos, or anything else that shows the reality of what stuttering is and the experience of people who stutter. We have centuries of misinformation to combat and every little bit helps to reshape attitudes.
- When you see something happen that feels weird or awkward about stuttering, say something—especially if you are a person who does not stutter. Many times we face discrimination in isolation and it is important to have those around us validate it and do something about it.
For people who stutter who are traveling:
Although I am not well traveled, especially internationally, the past few days I have come across some important things to remember while flying. Please feel free to share more in the comments sections.
-You may need to disclose that you stutter (which not all of us are comfortable doing) in order to explain your speech. Since this first posted, Ms. Simmons, in collaboration with The Stuttering Foundation, have created and released a travel card. The card, that you can print for free from here describes what stuttering is. My guess is that such a card is good for people who stutter to carry all the time. It might be presented when questioned by police at a traffic stop or at the airport.
-Know your rights. Listen to Corporal Peet’s interview and know what to expect and how to react when going through customs or similar processes. As he emphasized: if communication with personnel isn’t going well, ask to speak to a supervisor.
-If you feel discriminated against by customs or other government agencies, you can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights who will investigate.
This is nowhere near a complete list of a call for action. If you have other recommendations, please add them below.