As a person who stutters, I have heard it all! Upon introducing myself, I inevitably might hear “did you forget your name?” or “wh-wh-wh-what?” People who stutter find particular difficulties when interacting with people in a customer service capacity. Last year there was a news article about a Starbucks customer who found himself mocked by a barista who used the stuttering version of his name to identify his beverage. This may sound extreme, but so many of the 1 percent of the adult population who stutters has at least one experience where they were being mocked by a person who was in a role to help or serve them.
Librarians and library staff are among the most helpful people I have ever encountered! They are excited to help patrons find the perfect book or resource. In the past few decades there has been a push to make libraries more welcoming places for everyone, including people with disabilities. This has gone beyond ramps to include trainings on customer service with a focus on serving people with disabilities, displaying visual icons to help people with dyslexia navigate the Dewey Decimal System, and software to make their computers accessible to people with an array of disabilities.
In my experience, stuttering is often ignored because the library barriers don’t seem so obvious. Nonetheless, libraries will want to minimize awkward interactions like the one that occurred at Starbucks. The following are a few tips to consider. They include basic etiquette and also ways to reach out to the stuttering community, making libraries a place for resources and support.
1. Stuttering, like many other speech-based disabilities, is not apparent.
You won’t know someone stutters by looking at them, which means anyone approaching you might be a person who stutters. Knowing there is diversity in how people verbally express themselves helps make your interactions more inclusive. Assuming that anyone might stutter or speak in a variety of ways prepares you to address these differences when you encounter them. Some tips for facilitating these interactions include:
- Not interrupting the person and letting them finish what they are saying.
- Maintaining eye contact.
- If the person says something you don’t completely understand, repeat the part you did understand so that they only have to fill in the part you missed instead of saying the whole thing over again.
2. Don’t try to “fix” them.
People who stutter are often approached with cures for how to resolve their speech difficulties. These have included everything from old wives tales to hallucinogenics and miracle cures seen on talk shows. These are rarely helpful. Many people who stutter have likely been doing so for a long time and have tried multiple ways to manage their speech. There are no known cures for stuttering, so offering your distant relative’s rumored remedy to resolve their speech issues isn’t likely wanted or helpful information. In fact, many people who stutter have accepted their stuttering as divergent speech — just another way of talking — and we should follow suit!
3. Learn about stuttering resources.
There are important resources that should be shared when asked. These encourage and focus on information, peer support, acceptance of stuttering and advocacy. Resources that encourage self-acceptance and include people who stutter on their boards and in their leadership should be given special attention!
4. Promote positive images of people who stutter.
Positive images of people who stutter are rare. In books, film and TV we are often portrayed as anti-social, bitter, comical or with bumbling incompetency. It is important that people who stutter are reflected in complex ways that represent the full human experience. These aren’t necessarily stories of overcoming stuttering, but living with it and helping the reader deepen their understanding of what that experience is like. Recommended books and films include:
- “Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn’t Happen” by Nina G.
- “Shining a Light on Stuttering: How One Man Used Comedy to Turn His Impairment into Applause” by Dale Williams and Jaik Campbell
- “Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me to Find My Voice” by Katherine Preston
- “Stuttering Is Cool: Mischief, Mayhem and Mirth” by Daniele Rossi
- “Gabriela Speaks Out” by Teresa E. Harris
- “Adventures of a Stuttering Superhero: Adventure #1 Interrupt-itis” by Kim Block
- When Oliver Speaks by Kimberly Garvin and Wicks
5. Making your library a community space for people who stutter would be the neon sign that says “we get it!”
Hosting events or support groups that the National Stuttering Association (NSA) and other organizations sponsor is a great start. October 22 is International Stuttering Awareness Day. The second week of May is National Stuttering Awareness Week in the United States. All of these awareness days can help educate your communities about stuttering. It is also an excellent opportunity to partner with local stuttering organizations like the NSA support groups to hear what they would like to see and how the library could be helpful.
People who stutter or have other speech-based disabilities are as diverse patrons as other library patrons. They are likely looking up books that are of personal interest to them. They should have these opportunities in places where they can freely ask questions. These are just a few recommendations, but there is likely more that can be done! The best way to know what the stuttering community at your library wants is to simply ask them. Keeping the lines of communication open is key to serving any community. These are just a few steps to making the library a more welcoming place for everyone.