If you are like me, your head may have exploded watching parts of the DeVos hearings. I wanted to put a face on what her policies might result so I reflected on my own experience for my Huffington Post blog. Please share it so people understand that we can’t go backwards in supporting our kids (and adults) with disabilities.
NOTE TO READER: In case you haven’t read my WordPress blog before, this is the raw deal. I write in my full dyslexic glory without feedback from my regular editor. It is likely that this will be a draft for another article or possibly one day a book, so please comment. I would love to hear your differences in how your process speech or what science might say to explain my process.
It had been awhile since I went hard on comedy. I started working a full time job and a lot of my energy went into adjusting to my new duties and environment. Luckily my job was with a college so in my winter break, and with an entering US president who offers so much richness to a Disabled comedian that I decided I needed to hit the open mics. As my winter break ends I am reminded of the artistic process of doing comedy. Developing material from the premises to bits, adding tags and experimenting with the intonation and timing of the delivered punchlines. I am also reminded of how my dyslexia and stuttering interact with this process.
As I stood in front of a small humble audience in Silicon Valley, that would eventually pay $8 for my gas money to drive 40 miles, I could see the juxtaposition of new and old material and how it interacted with my stuttering blocks and repetitions. Old but trusted material was relatively fluent. It reminds me of when I was religious affairs student government officer at Saint Joseph Elementary school. The majority of my role was to saying morning prayer. When I originally decided to run for the office I knew that the criteria of saying prayers would not be a problem because memorized and automatic scripts can eventually become fluent for me (this is not always the case for all). I am sure when I was required to memorize certain prayers for my First Communion I may not have been fluent, but over time automaticity of speech takes over and bypasses the stuttering part of the brain. Apparently my jokes about sexism in comedy and disability discrimination function similarly. With enough memorization they become automatic and although I might stutter on some of it, I seem quiet fluent. So fluent in fact that some audience members look confused about my stuttering material, as they did in the Silicon Valley bar for the first 3 minutes of my set. Then we ventured into my new material and they quickly found out that I did actually stutter.
Most things having to do with language are processed on the left side of the brain. Rhythmic prose seem to be processed from the right side of the brain. Creating something that is language based and then speaking it tax the left side of the brain. As a comedian with dyslexia and who stutters, my left brain is on double duty when I write and perform new material. Knowing what topic pisses me off enough to talk about in front of an audience, figuring out the funny aspects in that topic, writing the setups, developing the punchlines, trying out tags (the extra little something after the punchline), trying out the material, often putting the word that I might stutter on at the end of the punchline, practicing the timing in the car, and finally manifesting this all in speech in front of the audience. And then, as the shampoo bottle directs, RINSE AND REPEAT. I do it again and again until I have each step down and it becomes so automatic that it is like saying the Our Father or Hail Mary. Of course these jokes are far from the holy, but my guess is that they eventually get stored in the same place in my brain.
I wanted to share this for a few reasons. First of all we either talk about stuttering or dyslexia but there are so many of us that have both of these. It is like we have to chose one of these things as a community. We rarely talk about their interaction. I have observed that the more my dyslexia is highlighted in the function I am doing, the more likely I am to stutter. I don’t know the neurology of how these two things work in tandem, but my guess is that the more my left brain needs to function, then the more my speech areas are exacerbated and the more I stutter. Again I don’t know if a speech and language pathologist would say the same thing, but I know that this is my own experience of stuttering and how it feels.
Secondly, I wanted to acknowledge the sometimes difficult experience of stuttering. I almost always write about the discrimination or the social-emotional aspects of our experience. I see these issues as the crux of the Disability experience. Why should we be discriminated against because of how we, as dyslexics, process language, or we as people who stutter, express ourselves. There is no known remedy of either of these aspects of myself, nor do I care about ridding myself of them. I would love it if people not be assholes, so please work toward that. Although I am not usually the merry sunshine type, I do like to talk about the positive experiences stuttering and dyslexia can bring like community and self-acceptance. I usually do not focus on the function of language, in part because I think that is what people expect. The media often focuses on how difficult it is for us to speak and not how attitudes need to be changed in how others accept our speech as part of neurodiversity. Additionally, the nuances of speaking from dyslexia and stuttering is often ignored. It just seems to complicated for the regular inspirational porn we tend to see on either stuttering or dyslexia.
Nonetheless, sometimes after a long day presenting at an all day workshop my jaw hurts (stuttering) and I could forget my husbands name (dyslexia). It also takes me a really long time to figure out comedy. I use to get double time for taking tests in college. For every hour that you took the test, I would have two hours. I needed time to process what I was being asked and then what I would respond back with. It feels the same for me in comedy. In addition to the writing aspects, there is remembering what I want to say. I also attempt to say it the same way every time, which can be difficult to pinpoint what I feel works and what does not. I even have someone transcribe some of my better sets so that I can see exactly what language was used. I then have to see what words I will almost always stutter on and how that might affect my timing. I then might have to structure my jokes so that timing is more efficient in delivering my message. I then go and practice the jokes in front of others, because as any person who stutters will tell you, we usually don’t stutter when we are alone. When I do stutter when I am alone, then I know this stutter will likely be even more exaggerated when I am in front of a crowd.
Are you exhausted yet? Just thinking about it makes my left brain hemisphere hurt!
The other night at an open mic I started feeling the frustration of my speech which I usually have an incredibly high tolerance for. I am like a stuttering Zen Master. I know that repetitions and blocks are going to come and go. I know that when my stutter is a bit more at times, that it will eventually become less. I have found that there isn’t anything exactly that I can do for it, I just know it will fluctuate. My recent surge of energy has brought some frustration though. Working on my new 8 minutes and word smithing for comedy timing along with stuttering timing, all while having dyslexia finally got the best of me. How does a stuttering-dyslexic comedian express their frustration? I ranted and somehow threw Marilyn Monroe under the bus (please forgive me Saint Marilyn!).
To introduce my newest joke I used a feigned exaggerated speech pattern hoping to be more fluent on the word “married.” Frustrated that I even had to do this, I shouted about the brain and how using a phony voice would help to ensure that the word “married” would come out quicker. I mentioned that Marilyn Monroe used this technique. Of course her double M name took me longer to get out than “married” ever would. And that’s when I pondered out loud what I had been thinking since I first learned that Monroe stuttered, “why would a person who stuttered give herself a double M name?” Of course it was not said in that classy kind of way. There may have been a stuttering F-word somewhere in there instead. You can check out the video below (warning, explicit language and Trump critique at the end).
My stuttering got to me this week. It wasn’t because someone asked me if there was an intrusive brain implant that could cure my speech or say that they could cure me by something they could do to me sexually (yes, I have had both said to me on multiple occasions). But I also discovered something about stuttering and comedy. As a comedian I create music. I know this because the more that my material transfers over to the right side of the brain (which is the hemisphere we sing from), I stutter less. The lyrics, the rhythm, the timing, the automaticity of the words are what make up comedy and utilized when I am on stage. Stuttering has helped me understand not only how difficult the chore of comedy can be but also the preciseness of speech. Wordsmithing punchlines and tags while figuring out why timing works this way but not that way is part of all comedy, stuttering or not. Many artists look down on comedy as a lesser art form. I think I just proved that a prolific and talented comedian is creating a symphony, they may be using the 7 dirty words, and working independently might I add, but the result is no less great. I don’t know if there are functional MRIs that show the different parts of the brain in creating comedy and delivering it, but my guess the whole brain is lighting up. I am just lucky enough to be the one who shows people at a late night comedy show how it all functions.
This is going to a super short post! I love the Equity vs. Equality images whether it is the baseball game or the people picking apples while standing on boxes, but I also felt the boxes left something to be desired from a Disability perspective. I asked my good friend and artists/comedian Jesse Elias to offer another possibility. I present it to you here!
Of course that ramp is too damn steep and far from ADA compliment! So this image isn’t without problems. But hey, it is a start! Hopefully someone will create one that isn’t so steep. If you do please share!
Also, over and above having a picture that represents equity, how about actually doing equity through universal access and design. I promise you, it will help everyone!
Check out my video and interview with Understood.org. Play the video or read the transcript here!
NINA G.: My name is Nina G., and I live in Oakland, California. I am a comedian and professional speaker, as well as an author and disability advocate.
[At Brainwash Comedy Club]
TONY SPARKS: I need you to lose your mind…for Nina G.!
NINA: Thank you.
TONY: Come on!
NINA: I have language-based learning disabilities that manifest in many, many ways, and I also stutter. Which isn’t LD, but it’s something going on in my brain too.
[At comedy club]
NINA: So if you have a learning disability or ADHD or you love a person that has a learning disability or ADHD, make some noise!
[cheers, woots, applause]
All right. Thank you.
Throughout my life, it’s affected the way that I read, the way that I write, that way that I spell, the way that I process information. Even in sign language, I thought, oh, my dyslexia’s not gonna be a problem there. But you do have the fingerspell.
[At comedy club] So I have some advice. A lot of times, I’ll be in the midst of a stutter, so I’ll be doing, “N-n-n-n.” And that’s when the other person does this with their hands.
You know? Yeah. Yeah. This, and telling me to “spit it out,” always very helpful.
I didn’t really have an outlet. I’m not an artist. I’m not musical at all. And sports was not my thing. The thing that I did love, though, from a very, very early age was stand-up comedy. That’s always been a thing that I’ve really loved and that I knew more of about than anybody else in my class and teachers and everybody. I learned how to be an advocate, and I learned how to have ideas, and I learned how to be heard. For me, being a comedian, I’m better able to access those ideas. Comedians who made discrimination tangible for people, so like Chris Rock and Richard Pryor and George Lopez, they were able to make audiences understand their experiences through comedy. And they’ve inspired me that maybe I can help people understand the experiences of people with disabilities through comedy or writing or whatever I do.
[At Superfest Film Festival]
I remember as a kid, maybe there’d be an episode of 90210 where one of the girls would have dyslexia. It was consider a “very special episode.” And then, they wouldn’t talk about it ever again. [laughter] And that was it. That was it!
[Interview] So many times, I think disability–whether it’s learning disabilities or stuttering or anything else–it’s presented as people being very weak. And that’s not true. In fact, kind of the opposite is true. That some of the strongest people that I’ve ever met are people with disabilities. But we’ve been presented this one image, and I think it’s really important to change that.
On December 29th, 2015, Mel Tillis had a press conference in Laughlin, Nevada. Here’s what he said about stuttering (sorry video is so bad!). For many of us who stutter, we think we have to be perfect when we speak, but thankfully Minnie Pearl encouraged Mr. Tillis to speak on stage. Link to video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJN5nX_ERf0
MC: did you say Mel Tillis or M-Mel Tillis?
MEL: M-m-m-Mel Tillis.
MC: Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a big round of applause for M-Mel Tillis!
MEL: I was signing autographs here oh, not too long ago, and there was a fellow in line. He was about 15 on down the line, and he hollers out, “Mel Tillis! I paid $34 to hear you stutter, and you ain’t stutter one damn bit!”
And I said, “I’m trying to quit, sir!”
MC: That’s awesome. Well, go ahead and have a seat right there.
You know, when I first went to Nashville, boy I really stuttered bad. And I signed on as a songwriter for Webb Pierce’s company, and he paid me $50 against a draw. And when the money started coming in, they took that out. So actually, they hired me for nothing.
But I was a songwriter, and Jim Denney was a part-owner of that company, the publishing company. He also had a booking agency. One of his acts was Minnie Pearl. Minnie was going out and doing the fair dates all over the Midwest: Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, all over the Midwest.
And she needed a rhythm guitar player and a singer. And Mr. Denny put me with her, and then I found out that she needed a fiddle player. Well, I had met a fiddle player at the coffee shop there on South and Union.
His name was Roger Miller.
And he said he could play the fiddle. I said, “Can you play?” “Yeah, I can play.” Then I went back, and I told them about him, and they hired him. We went out on the road, and I couldn’t even talk hardly in those days. Roger would introduce my song, and I’d sing it. Then, he’d come back out there and said, “Mel Tillis said ‘thank you’!”.
That’s the truth.
One day, Minnie Pearl–.
She’d been over there watching [inaudible] outdoors. I went over there, and I said, “Yes, Ma’am?” And says, “Mel,” she says, “I see that you have a little problem with speaking.” “Yes, Ma’am.”
And she said, “Well, if you’re gonna be in our business, you need to introduce your own song. And then you need to thank them. And then after the show, you need to sign autographs.” And I said, “Ms. Minnie, I c-,” I said, “I can’t do that.” I said, “They’ll laugh at me.” And she said, “No, they won’t now, but they’ll laugh with you.”
And I started talking onstage, and the next thing I knew, I did 17 Johnny Carson shows.
[inaudible], The Merv Griffin Show, The Dan Barton Show, The Hollywood Squares. I did them all and 13 movies. And Ms. Minnie was right.
MC: Yes, she was.
MEL: I started talking onstage. People did think that it’s something that I use. I don’t use it. When I was out there on the Glen Campbell “Goodtime Hour,” they would write that stuff, and we would say. They’d put the stutter in there!
I said, “I might not even stutter on that word! Take that thing outta there!”
But you know, over the years, the more I talked onstage–and Ms. Minnie was right–the less I stuttered.
It’s still part for me, when I read something. I still have a problem reading orally. And that’s why I read silent.
MC: That’s awesome. So you were also involved in the SAY organization, which is for people, actually, who have that challenge, who have stuttering.
MEL: The Stuttering Foundation of America, yeah. And I’ve got a painting–you put it up on your phone there–a painting called “Masonic America,” and I’ve raised $88,000 for speech and hearing clinics with the Stuttering Foundation of America. I’m proud of it.
You put it up. You’ll see it. [inaudible]. Not only will you see that picture, but you’ll see a lot of my paintings that I do. I do that too.
*This blog is written in my dyslexicon. I specifically didn’t proof this for edits to demonstrate what my writing is without the standard edits.
NPR went dyslexic this week for a series on different aspects of dyslexia. They offered some great information. My main critique is that the programing didn’t include discussion of civil rights as they relate to individuals with Learning Disabilities. As someone with dyslexia, who experienced early intervention yet struggled through school, one of the key components for me was advocacy.
I remember the first time that I received an accommodation on a test. My third grade teacher gave me the test orally. I told her the answers to her questions. I was the first one to finish the test and the first one to get an A, likely my first A on a test for that year. Unfortunately, that was one of the last accommodations I remember from my third grade Catholic School teacher. Back in the 1980s many private schools didn’t accommodate students with disabilities, this has gotten better since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of the lack of access, I saw my parents advocate for me year after year, often resulting in my father kicking my mother under the table in fear that she was coming on “too strong” to the teachers.
I eventually went to public school where I had better access to my education and teachers who had my back. Consequently, my parents let me pick up the advocacy slack. It was my turn to advocate for what I needed from teachers. This helped to prepare me for college where the responsibility lies on student to speak up and ask for accommodations from the school and their individual teachers. These skills are what helped me graduate from Berkeley and go onto a doctoral program at a small private school that didn’t offer the array of accommodations that my Berkeley and my community colleges offered.
NPR, thank you for featuring dyslexia. Thank you for having a report with dyslexia who brought the experiences of individuals with dyslexia into the forefront. It was wonderful to hear my experiences reflected on the radio show. Thank you for letting parents know that there are options for their kids and that they can grow up to be successful. Just please remember that in the United States there were a lot of Disability rights activists who fought for our rights to get access to school, the work place and just about every other part of life. Knowing these rights and how to advocate is key to our success.
In addition to the links to the NPR stories, I have included my own Huffington Post blog that I wrote on tips to graduating seniors with dyslexia on advocacy in college.
The schools oftentimes told my parents that Catholic school was not for me, that it wasn’t a place that I belonged and that they only served the “typical” kids. And the one story that I really wanted to share with you was when I first got diagnosed, the schools kinda tried to push me out. My mom tried to educate them about what a learning disability was.
And so she called up Cal at the time, and they had a disability office. And they specifically had a program for students who had LD. And she got a letter from the school and presented it to the teachers and said, “Look at this! You think she’s only gonna fry French fries. I think that was your exact term, McDonalds.”
So she said, “She’s only gonna work there,” which by the way, if they increase the minimum wage, that would be awesome. [ laughs ] You wouldn’t have any loans. And showed that letter to the teachers. And the teachers just kind of ignored it, and it didn’t really work.
But she folded it up and put it in the drawer next to my savings bonds from my first Communion and a lot of other really important things like my Social Security card. And it sat there, and for me, even though it didn’t help with the teacher, it helped that I saw her actually do that.
And I eventually went to Cal, and I think it was a big part because I knew that that was a school that they had accommodations.
And so sometimes the interventions and the activism and the advocacy that you do as a parent, it may not work on the person that you’re trying to direct it at. But it may work because of the impact on your kid.
Ok, I lied! I thought if it worked for overseas fake news outlets that it might work to tell you about my Tedx Talk in honor of Anti-bullying week. So many times we tell kids and adults, “don’t bully” but what about when you witness something? It is just as important to not be complacent in bullying as it is not to bully. My Tedx Talk, The Everyday Ally, explores what it meant for me when I was bullied or discriminated against and what people did to be on my side. Even doing small things when you witness something can make someone feel less alone.
Nina G, stand up comedian, author, Disability advocate and professional speaker is happy to announce her new collaboration with the National Stuttering Association (NSA), an organization that empowers people who stutter and builds community.
Every six months Nina chooses a new organization to donate a portion of her professional speaking fees to worthy nonprofit organizations. The organizations Nina chooses will also be featured on her social media outlets to increase their visibility . The first organization selected was YO! Disabled and proud. Yo! connects, organizes and educates youth with disabilities ages 16-28 throughout California. Nina raised hundreds of dollars for the organization in the six months collaborated with YO! She now turns her attention to the NSA.
The NSA, founded in 1977, is the largest support group organization in the world for people who stutter. It provides peer-facilitated chapter meetings that provide self-help, support, and education for those who stutter–as well as for those interested in stuttering. Nina’s relationship started with the NSA, when it was the National Stuttering Project, when she was in high school. One late night, while watching TV, she saw an advertisement for an organization of people who stuttered. Nina contacted the organization and began to volunteer. She discovered that it was ok to stutter. Her way of speaking was validated by others who were like her and successful adults. After taking a 15 year break from the NSA, Nina attended the 2008 conference in Arizona where she again discovered how much her stuttering was impacting her life. It wasn’t because of the speech itself but because of her own issues about how she saw herself. The conference was a catalyst for making changes in her life. Within six months after the conference, she began doing stand up comedy, a childhood dream that she never thought she would achieve because of her speech.
Nina adds “at the NSA conference in 2008 I saw myself reflected in the people who attended. Beautiful, smart, and amazing people. I knew then that I was holding myself back. I wasn’t talking as much as I wanted to because I was trying to make others comfortable with my speech. I thought, “why am I holding myself back in social situations when I would not want this for others? That is when I started to think about doing stand up and have been doing it steadily for the past six years”
From December to July, Nina will be donating a portion of the proceeds from her speaking engagements to the NSA for the scholarship program that sponsors people who stutter and families to come to the the annual conference (2016 is in Atlanta).
Follow Nina for more information:
Facebook Fan Page: Facebook.com/ninagcomedian
Twitter: @ninagcomedian (occasional adult content)
Youtube: NinaGcomic (some adult content)
Description: Picture of men sitting around a table from the movie Goodfellas. Caption: “What People with Disabilities think when you call them inspirations: ‘Let me understand this … cuz maybe its me, maybe I’m a little fucked up. I’m inspirational how, I mean inspirational, like I’m an inspiration? I inspire you. I make you inspired? I’m here to fuckin’ inspire you? Whattya you mean inspiration? Inspiration how? How am I inspiring?’”
Insights from a stuttering comedian with dyslexia. These are my unedited thoughts. Grammar and spelling doesn't count on blogging, especially since it did I would never post!