Tag Archives: stutter

How Will You Celebrate Stuttering Awareness?

As a stand up comedian and Disability educator, I aim to make the world more aware of aspects of the disability experience.  As a person who stutters, who loves her community, I make a special point to share my experience and educate people about stuttering and stuttering etiquette.  In everything I do, I hope to go beyond stuttering awareness to place where we can celebrate our community and have a more inclusive world where we are able to be more integrated in our identities as people who stutter and however else we identify (culture, talents, hobbies, etc…).  We just aren’t our speech, but I personally don’t want people to overlook my experiences as a Stutterer because those experiences are an important part of what has created me.

Sometimes I get a little stuck on how I want to raise awareness.  I am just one individual, so how will I make an impact in raising awareness in my personal and professional lives, not to mention the world?  I have some ideas that I wanted to share with you.  And in no particular order….

Ain’t No Party Like A Stuttering Party

You know what?  People don’t equate stuttering or disability with fun!  I know, I don’t get it either.  Whenever I am around people who share my experiences I have hella fun.  I feel like I am at home.  People without disabilities or who don’t stutter can’t even imagine us getting together and partying.  Why not get together with your local stuttering community and go out to eat, picnic, sing karaoke, go out dancing, or whatever would be fun.  Make it an open invitation so people can meet up (you can even use meetup.com to do outreach), meet each other and find a community where they can not only share their gripes about stuttering in a fluent world, but also share their joys, successes and laughter.  Making space for us to have fun is so important and is a great bonding experience.  If you want to wear matching shirts or stuttering awareness sashes, that is great, but just getting together is a big deal for us.

Fun+food+stuttering=awareness

As an Italian-American, I tend to overdo it with the food, so I think I have some expertise in this area.  My plan is to bring stuttering awareness cupcakes to my office to share this year.  They will eat sea-green colored cupcakes but also get information about how to talk to a person who stutters.  There is plenty of information online about stuttering (just make sure it is the good stuff—please don’t send them that BS of Tony Robbins curing a person who stutters in 7 minutes because he was traumatized by Rocky and Bulwrinkle–no joke!  There is a lot of information about stuttering.  There are many organizations that produce materials such as the National Stuttering Association (NSA), Friends who Stutter, and Say.  Both organizations stress self-acceptance, community, and treatment options for people who stutter.  Not everyone is looking to be fluent and it is important for people outside of our community to know that we don’t need to be fixed.  Why not provide this type of information with decorated cookies or cupcakes?!

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Providing resources

Whatever you do, remember to provide resources to people you outreach too.  You might want to make a list of your top ten links, organizations, or videos.  Sometimes people are too shy to ask questions so providing resources can help them to find information on their own and digest it in their own time.  There are also some great podcasts like Women Who Stutter: Our Stories, Stutter Talk and Stuttering is Cool that you can promote as resources where real life experiences are explored.  Also, there are wonderful communities that can be found online.  One of my favorites is Stutter Social where you can communicate with people who stutter from all around the world in real time.  Because it is a Google Circle, you are able to see and hear people and is open to everyone.

Donating/Fundraising

There are large and small ways to fundraise or donate.  The most obvious is to just do it.  Send money to your favorite stuttering organization.  Many of us can’t afford to do this, but we might be able to organize an event to raise money.  There are some amazing organizations that help individuals who stutter to find their identity and advocate against discrimination.  Find out what stuttering organizations fit your own passions.  Besides raising money, your personal campaign funding is also raising awareness too because you are profiling an organization that you are passionate about.

Extra-Extra: Stutter all about it!

Did you know that radio stations NEED to do public service announcements (PSAs) as part of their community outreach?  Why not one about stuttering? I found the National Stuttering Association when I was a teenager because of a late night PSA and it changed my life.  Why not network to see how you can bring stuttering to a bigger audience?  Contacting your local news outlets is another great way to get the word out.  National Stuttering Awareness week is a great hook for a news outlet to cover.

Social Media

Social media is a blog entry in and of itself!  Lots of great activism goes on in social media.  Between tweeting, facebooking, blogging/vlogging, pinning and whatever else Silicon Valley has introduced this week, there is a ton of stuff that you can do to raise awareness and celebrate the Stuttering community.  Here are a few ideas.

Memes

For my purposes, I am talking about the little pictures that you can post to your social media.  Memes have a more broad definition, but let’s stick to the images for now.  Memes are a great way to give a visual image to a sound bite that you want to convey.  You can create your own to share or you can re-share others.  I have some of the ones that I have created at, please feel free to steal them: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.918396334847879.1073741833.123746114312909&type=1

Whether you create your own or share other’s, you might want to include a message about what the meme means to you and why you are sharing it.  We don’t always get to share our experience of stuttering, so saying a bit about it’s significance in your life will help to educate others.

Vlogs/Blogs

One of my biggest pet peeves, whether we are talking about entertainment or the academic/research realms, is that we, as people who stutter, have often had our voices blunted by the dominant/fluent perspective.  Traditionally, we have not had control over our images in the media or elsewhere.  The Disability community has adopted the slogan, “nothing about us without us” meaning that we should have say over all aspects of our Disability experience.  For the first time in our history, we have a direct line for representing who we are.  Why not share your experiences to the world?  Of course you should consider what you are sharing and take precautions.  If you are a young person, check with your family and friends to see if what you are thinking is a good idea and if you are prepared for any backlash.  Just assume that someone will have a problem with what you are saying, but also know that if you speak from a place that is authentic and true to yourself, you will touch people.  Other videos, like skits or slide shows, can also contribute to the library of images and diversity of content about stuttering.

One of my favorite videos I have worked on was with Gina Davis.  

Sharing videos

Sometimes you just can’t get around to creating a video or a blog but you might want to share other videos/blogs that represent your views.  There is a lot of great stuff out there and losing yourself in a search can produce some great opportunities to educate people on your Twitter feed and Facebook.  When sharing, do take into consideration that over saturating your Facebook feed can water down your message.  People get overwhelmed.  It might be better for you to post twice a day over the week instead of all at once.  Marketing research says that the peak time for Facebook is 11AM.  Apparently you are all sneaking it at work!  Thinking strategically can make the most out of your own personal awareness campaign.  Also, instead of just posting videos, include comments or questions so that people interact with the video.  It might start some great conversations on your feed!

People you admire who also happen to stutter

If I see another meme or article about Tiger Woods overcoming his stuttering, I am going to hurl!  So many of the images of people who stutter are people who don’t stutter openly.  Look beyond the awareness posters and images of “people who overcame” and look toward the athletes, professors, reporters, podcast hosts, authors and people YOU identify with.  Post these pictures and bios to your social media outlets and let people know why they are important to you.

The following is a list of some of the stuttering awareness material I have produced over the years.  Please include additional links in the comments section.  I hope something touches you and motivates you to tell others about stuttering:

BLOGS

Don’t Be That Person Who Stutters

The Stuttering Iceberg Gets A Make Over

License to Stutter: What the Stuttering Community Has Meant to Me

VIDEOS

Minnie Pearl Inspires Mel Tillis To Stutter

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

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Vintage photo of Mel Tillis (looking pretty fine)

MC: did you say Mel Tillis or M-Mel Tillis?

[laughter]

MEL: M-m-m-Mel Tillis.

MC: Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a big round of applause for M-Mel Tillis!

[applause, cheers]

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!”

[laughter]

And I said, “I’m trying to quit, sir!”

[laughter]

MC: That’s awesome. Well, go ahead and have a seat right there.

MEL: OK.

.

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.

[laughter].

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.

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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.

[crowd excited].

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’!”.

[laughter].

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.

[laughter].

[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!

[laughter]

I said, “I might not even stutter on that word! Take that thing outta there!”

[laughter]

But you know, over the years, the more I talked onstage–and Ms. Minnie was right–the less I stuttered.

[applause]

It’s still part for me, when I read something. I still have a problem reading orally. And that’s why I read silent.

[laughter]

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.

[applause, cheers]

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.

MC: Wow!

Stuttering On My Own Terms

(I haven’t proof read this–so deal with it!)

As a stand up comedian who stutters, people make a lot of assumptions about me.  Fluent people think I am brave for public speaking.  After doing a presentation at a library (before my days as a comedian), a woman came up to me and said, “you are such an inspiration.  If I talked like you, I wouldn’t talk at all.”  With experiences like this, how do you not turn to comedy?!

People who stutter assume something else about me.  They assume that I am totally free of stuttering fear, shame, frustration and whatever else we feel when we talk.  It is as if I am immune because I tell dick jokes in a dive bar at midnight (which is much of what you do as a stand up).  For those who think I stutter through life without the stutter bug (the feelings we attach to stuttering) catching me, I am writing this for you.

Let me start the story backwards (dyslexic style).  This was the night that I won the Killer Laughs Comedy  Competition against all odds.  It wasn’t against all odds because I stutter.  It was against all odds because I was the very first comedian of the line up and the first comedian the line up in a competition NEVER wins.  With this in mind, I decided to do something different.  My parents were suppose to be in the audience to support me and event more importantly, VOTE for me.  Of course, they were late as they often times are.

Since I figured I wasn’t going to win I decided to get back at my parents for something they did to me when I was eleven years old.  When I was a kid I won a joke telling contest on the radio that was judged by San Francisco comedy legend Will Durst.  The prize was seeing him at The Other Cafe, a legendary comedy club that closed in the early 1990s.  I was a really big comedy nerd so I was way excited about going to my first comedy club, especially based off of my own joke.  I won’t mention that the joke was one I stole from Pee Wee Herman from his appearance on Letterman (“I don’t know his name, but his face rings a bell”).  We lived in San Leandro about 45 minutes away from the Haight Ashbury where the club was located.  Of course, we were late.  We drove by the club and saw through the corner window that the show was already underway.  My parents decided not to go to the show because they were afraid the comedians would make fun of them for being late.  I started crying and we ended up going to see the movie Innerspace.  Martin Short would have to be my Will Durst substitute.

As shows I usually stick to my scripted jokes, but I decided not to that night at the competition.  Instead, knowing that my parents were in the parking lot and on their way in during my set, I explained to the audience how they robbed me of my first comedy club experience.  That was when I asked a room full of people to turn around when I said “hi mom and dad” and then turn around to stare and boo my parents.  I made sure to tell the audience that I knew I wasn’t going to win anyways because I was up first.

At the end of the competition I came in first place.  I then went for 4 or 5 more rounds, beating out 120 comedians and ended up winning the whole damn thing (and I didn’t even bring an audience).  To all the comedians reading this who are saying to themselves, “your not that funny and competitions don’t mean anything,” you can go F’ yourselves.  I still won.

So that explains the end of the night.  Now let me tell you about the beginning of the night.

I carpooled to the competition with a car full of my good comedy friends who I would be competing against.  Apparently my car was clean that night because five of us were able to fit into my jeep.  Feeling the need for caffeine to get myself through the show, I decided to stop by the McDonalds on the way to the competition.  Before ordering my “large diet coke” I asked everyone in the car if they wanted anything.  They all denied my offer to order for them and I followed up with, “are you sure?”  They assured me that I was the only one ordering.  After I ordered my “large diet coke” my friends started barking out orders, “order me a Fillet-o-fish.”  “Get me a Big Mac with cheese and a Sprit.”  I literally froze.  I couldn’t do it!  I signaled for my friend in the front row to order and rolled down the backseat windows to yell out their order.  Afterwards my friends were pretty astonished that I couldn’t place the order, making the observation that I could talk in front of hundreds of people but could not place an order to a fast food worker. And I was like, “I stutter, we don’t always do drive-thrus.”

What happened was I felt a lack of control when orders were being barked out at me.  When I am on stage, I have the mic and usually I am the one in control.  I say what I want.  My friends had no idea that requesting a Fillet-O-Fish would make me throw in the towel at a drive in.  So many times we, as people who stutter, blame ourselves for not living up to perceived expectations.  I think we internalize the expectations that we need to be fixed and talk like everyone else.  Even if we stutter openly, many of us put pressure on ourselves that we need to be self-accepting and courageous at all times no matter what.  People perceive my ability to talk in front of hundreds of people as a evidence that I stutter confidently and without stigma 24/7.  How would this be possible when we are socialized in the world we are socialized in?  We aren’t always going to be able live up to others or ourselves and we need to be kind to ourselves.  Sometimes asking our significant other to order the pepperoni pizza after a long day at work isn’t a stuttering sin and a sign of our lack of pride or self-acceptance.  If you stutter, awesome and if you want to sit one out, it doesn’t mean you’re lesser than anyone else.  Stutter with as much pride as you can but on your terms and no else’s.  And if you are ever in a car with me, know that I will throw my Diet Coke at you if make me order a F’n Fillet-O-Fish.

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Five Tips For Stuttering Your Way Through Presentations

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Most of my comedy life is getting up on stage and telling jokes.  Most of my professional life is getting up in front of people and training them.  All of my life is lived as a person who stutters.  People who stutter and even those who don’t, are surprised that an individual who stutters can command a room or have the “guts” to stand in front of people and talk.  I enjoy it and with the exception of neck, back and jaw aches on some days, I am pretty unaffected by my speech.  Of course, there was the one day when I stuttered and a piece of my breakfast flew out of my mouth and landed on one of the participants’ fingers but other than that stuttering doesn’t interfere with my stand up or when leading groups.

People who stutter email and message me all the time on Facebook and ask me how I can get up in front of people and talk and if I have any tips.  I thought I would offer some suggestions that would help my stuttering brothers and sisters, but might also help a broader audience.

  1. “I stutter and you are going to have to wait patiently for all my brilliant ideas”

When do you tell a person that you stutter?  Do you let it happen organically?  Do you talk around your the words that you think you will stutter on and strive for complete fluency?

These are all questions that I have asked myself.  I remember being in high school Speech class and constructing speeches where I took out every word that I thought I would stutter on.  Once I even did a horrible rap (on Doxidan-a popular laxative at the time) because I knew that I could be fluent if I rapped or put on a voice.  Oh my God, it was just awful!  Another time I had to work with a partner to review a movie.  We chose “Strange Brew” and I spent the entire time talking like Bob and Doug McKenzie (“take off, eh?) to achieve fluency.  No wonder I wasn’t popular with the boys!

Through the years I have embraced my speech.  Being around others who stutter has helped significantly, which is why I highly recommend finding a National Stuttering Association chapter or conference.  Seeing and experiencing people who talk like you is validating and an important step in self-acceptance.  With self-acceptance comes a level of comfort with how you speak and subsequently self-disclosure.  I personally, disclose my stuttering in stand up comedy or when doing presentations as early as possible.  If I am doing stand up, I do the first part of my set on stuttering.  If I am doing presentations or even when I am on a job interview, I state early “just so you know, I stutter so you are going to have to wait for all of the brilliant things I have to say.”  This usually breaks the ice plus I just told the people I am meeting with how I want them to respond to my speech and that I am a capable person.  The reality is that most people don’t know how to respond to our speech since we might be the first person they have ever met who stutters.  If we can mold their response to us it can save some awkward moments later on.  If time allows in my presentations, I will go more in-depth and share more tips and even talk about the cause of stuttering (current research indicates it is neurologically based).  I have included a clip from a presentation I did for the MGM Grand on Disability Awareness where I offer tips on how to talk to a person who stutters.

Everyone is going to disclose their stuttering differently.  You should develop a way that you are comfortable with and even try it out on different friends and family to see their response.  Remember, it is your stuttering, your presentation and your audience.  So many times as people who stutter we feel our speech is out of our control.  When doing presentations, you may not have control of your stuttering, but you do have control over your presentation so seize it!

One more thing.  Don’t apologize for your speech.  Your stuttering is a part of you.  Saying, “sorry but I stutter” is like me getting up and saying, “sorry guys, but I am a woman.”  How wrong would that be?!

 2.  Be passionate about what you are talking about!

You know what I don’t do presentations on and jokes about?  Things I don’t care about!  As a person who stutters I know that what I want to say is sacred.  I have not always been comfortable talking and when I have chosen to interject, it is because it is something I am so passionate about that I can’t keep quiet.  When presenting on a topic, be passionate and knowledgable about it.  If the thing you love is the civil war and the modes of transportation used at this time, then do your presentation on that (although make sure you have the right context to present).  If you love the thing you are talking about then your audience will appreciate what you have to say and the excitement for the topic will be contagious.  I always speak from my heart and try to relate to practical things in my own life.  Through the years I have developed an arsenal of stories that I use on different topics.  These stories can be planned into a presentation or, even better, may come up at spontaneous times, so people look like you are speaking off the cuff, but meanwhile it was already planned.

Loving what you talk about gives you context and expertise.  Participants will be impressed with your knowledge and you will feel that you are in a zone to be successful.

3.  “I just said three P words in a row.  Try saying that if you stutter!”

There might be times where stuttering may get in the way or come to the foreground of your presentations.  For example, in my stand up, when I am quoting someone who said something awful about my stutter and I stutter on what they say, I will add “but they didn’t stutter when they said it, that is probably a key point.”  I acknowledge that my stuttering is somewhat out of context.  I poke fun at the process of speaking but I don’t necessarily make fun of myself.  Another example, from my stand up act is when I say three P-words in a row (for the sake of keeping this essay PG rated I will leave the direct quote out).  After saying the sentence, I add “try saying that if you stutter, I had to practice that a lot in the car on the way here to say that fluently.”

The other day I was showing off Google’s speech to text software where you can speak into your phone and it appears in Google docs.  One of the workshop participants said she wanted to learn about hieroglyphics, totally a word I would stutter on, which I did when I spoke into my phone for the demonstration.  The software butchered my word and it came out funky.  I said, “Google speech obviously doesn’t like people who stutter.”  This demonstrated that the software had some issues for people who might not have standard speech and that I could have a sense of humor about the process of talking, but I remained a good communicator.

4.  Remember, good presenting isn’t all about you!

Not everyone gets this one, especially my professors I had in university.  When presenting, yes you are the focus but it isn’t all about you.  I think sometimes as people who stutter, we feel we have to command the room at all times and talk the entire time.  It is more helpful to think of yourself as a facilitator rather than a speaker.  Your goal is that your audience takes ownership of the topic you are presenting on.  Helping them develop what this means for them is a big part of that.  Some ways to do this include:

-Pair and Share: put people in pairs (sometimes I will have them find someone with the same sock, eye or hair color) and direct them on what to discuss.

-Walk and Talk Activities: have participants walk around the building or the block for a few minutes and discuss a topic that you give them.  This involves them in the topic and rejuvenates their brains to be able to sit through the next part of your presentation.

-Small, medium, and large group discussion.  People need to construct their own knowledge of a topic in order for them to buy into it.  Just sitting there listening to you is not going to do that.

5.  People who Stutter can be good communicators!

Many people who stutter have internalized the fallacy that we are bad communicators.  One has nothing to do with the other.  There are plenty of fluent people who could improve their communication skills and plenty of people who stutter who maintain strong communication skills.  Strong communication skills for presenting, whether or not you stutter include good eye contact, fluctuating the tone of your voice, body language, and using distance to emphasize your talking points.  Using these techniques in a way that is authentic to who you are is key.  I tend to be a silly person, at times kind of weird, and even in professional situations I try to remain true to who I am.  Using different voices, hand motions, walking around the room and making eye contact with every single person in the room helps to convey my objectives.

Using multiple modes of expression (visual, auditory, and hands-on) also helps communication.  Using powerpoint slides with pictures, videos, and music can also facilitate what you are presenting.  I even do an interpretive dance to describe the brain of someone with dyslexia.  Using other modes of presenting is just good teaching and presenting.  You are more than a speaker, you are orchestrating your audience’s learning and your mouth is just one of your instruments.

Nina G is America’s only female comedian who stutters.  She is also a keynote speaker, educator and author of the children’s book Once Upon an Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities.  New for 2015 she is consulting with individuals to make their presentations fun, dynamic and hilarious.  For more information about Nina and the services she offers, go to www.Ninagcomedian.com.  Also look for the debut of her one person show Going Beyond Inspirational in April.

What’s So Funny About Disability Awareness Tour

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Nina G is the world’s only female stuttering stand up comedian (with a Learning Disability) and she is coming to the New York/New Jersey state area to spread disability awareness and tour her book Once Upon an Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities! Some openings in the schedule are still available in mid-April. She will be touring colleges, classrooms, comedy clubs and public agencies spreading awareness of disability issues! There are still days and times left to book her for one or more of the following:

 

• Stand up comedy with the Comedians with Disabilities Act (approximately 1.5 hour)

 

• Motivational Speaking and storytelling/question and answer/meet and greet (1.5 hours)

 

• Lead Disability Awareness activities and discussion (varies 1-3 hours)

 

• Teacher training for elementary, high school, or college (varies 1-3 hours)

 

• Classroom/Small group discussions on specific topics:

– Overcoming obstacles to success

– Self-esteem and Disability

– Study Skills

– Advocacy

– General information about stuttering and/or learning disabilities

 

Reduced speaker rates for the New York state area! Please email Nina for more information at NinaGBooking@gmail.com. For more information on Nina G check her out on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/NinaGcomedian

Learning to Stutter: What I learned from being bullied by a 7 year old

At the end of my sixth grade year I ran for student government.  The office I ran for was “religious affairs officer” that I would serve during my seventh grade year.  The tasks of the religious affairs officer was to collect mission money and say the morning prayer at assembly.  My primary goal in school was to always get out of class and collecting mission money was a pious manipulation to spend at least 1-2 hours a week outside of classroom.  Time occupied outside of the classroom is always a plus a student with a Learning Disability.  Since I stuttered, the morning prayer wouldn’t be a problem either because most people who stutter do not stutter when they recite a poem or speak in unison with a group.  The speech I constructed for the election campaign excluded all words that I thought I would stutter on with sentences constructed to reduce any chances of stuttering. When I won the election I didn’t know what other speaking situations would be forced on me because the pre-planning of an 11 year old isn’t very good.  I won the election although there was some objection to me winning.  The candidate I ran against objected because she felt that I bribed the grammar school constituents by handing out Tootsie Roll suckers with my name on them.  I drove a competitive campaign.

The next academic year, the new student council needed to be sworn in.  It being a Catholic school, and taking itself much too seriously, over celebrated with a ritual.  During the initial rehearsal for the inauguration, Ms. Casquera lined us up on stage to run through the ceremony.  In spite of it being the mid-1980s, Ms. Casquera looked like the square villainess from a retro Frankie and Annette beach movie .  Polyester blue suit, comfortable nun-like shoes, dark loose fitting nude pantyhose, a dyed black bouffant hairdo and, to top it off, cat eyed glasses.  I remember once staring at her during a windy lunchtime recess.  Garbage was blowing everywhere, but the wind could not penetrate her beehive hairdo.  Not one hair was out of place!  Even though she sounds like she would be potentially awful, she was actually ok in the quiet sort of way.

 

During the rehearsal, I learned that each student had to state, “I (insert name here)” before reading the oath in unison.  Of course no one had a problem with their name.  When it came to me I naturally stuttered on Nina.  The combination of the “I” before my name along with my name made it a stutterpalooza.  You should understand that most of us people who stutter, stutter on our own names.  There is no substitute for our name, unless we straight up change it, which some of us might to from time to time.  But this wasn’t a Starbucks order where I could slyly say my name is Enid instead of Nina.  I had to say “I Nina G.”  When I stuttered in the rehearsal it resulted in laughter for the mostly 7th and 8th graders who were there “leadership qualities”.  What really pissed me of was that one of the girls laughing had a very mild stutter.  Apparently, there was no solidarity in the stuttering dog eat stuttering dog world of the middle school during the 1980s.  Ms. Casquera attempted to intervene by telling the students to shut up, but it didn’t work.  I left feeling defeated.

 

There was one of my fellow student representatives who didn’t laugh like the others.  He was in the 8th grade and tended to be on the hyperactive side (I have always connected to hyperactive men and boys.  The potential to get into trouble with them is just too wonderfully overwhelming!).  I remember that same year this boy dressed like a 1970s Fat Elvis in a white jumpsuit and tiny toy guitar which I saw as evidence of his integrated weirdness, which I was impressed with.  The rest of the year I called him Elvis, thus forgetting his name forever, so from here on out he will be referred to as “Elvis”.  After rehearsal, Elvis approached me and asked, “can you say ninja?  Because if you can say ninja, you just switch it over to Nina instead.”

 

When you stutter, or have any kind of disability, suddenly everyone becomes an expert on your type of disability.  Advice like “just slow down and breath” is common and recommended with great hope that this will be the solution to all your problems, making them your abled bodied savior.  Gee, I guess I NEVER thought of slowing down when talking and this entire time I guess I have not been breathing! (Really, breathing?)  There was even the time when I educated a psychologist about stuttering.  I explained to him that it is a brain based disability in the left frontal-temporal hemisphere.  I went on to share that Marilyn Monroe stuttered which was why she talked in her whispery-sexy voice.  I demonstrated it as well.  His reply? “That is very sexy, maybe you should talk like that all the time.”  Really Mr. Dr. Psychologist?  Because people will take me much more serious if I talked like a baby!  Way to empower women! That’s ok, I think I’d rather stutter.

 

At the time though, the advice coming from this 8th grade Elvis boy was actually ok.  He was attempting to be an ally where I thought I didn’t have one.  Plus he was kinda cute.  Funny how that can get you a pass, even on shitty speech therapy advice.  I did appreciate his attempt to help and I felt that I had at least one friend.

 

All that week I practiced my name alone in my room.  I practiced it with my parents who even drove me an hour away so I could practice my name in front of my speech therapist.  It is funny that my parents would let me take a sick day at a moment’s notice but never introduced this as an option for the inauguration ceremony.  Instead it was assumed that I would attend and participate.

 

Finally the day of the inauguration came.  All the student body officers were in their school uniforms and wearing white gloves to convey the formality of the event.  The program started with the student officers sitting on stage with all the girls crossing their legs at the ankle as instructed.  We sat across the stage from the principal, Sister Theresa, Ms. Casquera and the parish priests.  The entire school was in attendance as well as some interested parents and the local newspaper.  You would have thought it was the frickin’ Kennedys being sworn in!

 

The ceremony started with the priest saying an opening prayer.  We then proceeded to the oath where each of had to say “I (insert name here).”  Again and again I practiced my name along with my speech techniques in my head.  It was my turn to say “I, Nina G” and I proceeded to stutter, “I N-N-Nina G.”  “Did I really do it?  Did I really just stutter on my own name?” I thought to myself.  In my seventh grade girl mind I knew my life was over.  That was it!  I would need to transfer schools, maybe even move.  I mean the newspaper was there!  I immediately saw the headline, “Girl stutters on her own name in front of entire school.”  Keep in mind, this was before the Upworthy website could turn my traumatized experience into a one sentence blurb to inspire people.

 

As I got off the stage I expected a repeat of the rehearsal where the other officers made fun of me except this time it would be times ten because I was exposed to the entire school.  That was when I walked by Sara, a girl from my class.  She said, “Nina, good job.”  I was a bit stunned.  I initially thought that she was being sarcastic, but then I realized that she was just being nice.  “That’s weird,” I thought (luckily Sara is now a teacher in the inner city!).

 

I proceeded with my day waiting for the next person to start making fun of me.  I had not yet had  recess so I was expecting I would get it then.  During recess I was talking to Elvis, the 8th grade boy when a second grader who had seen the older kids make fun of me approached us.  He came up to me and said, “Hey, N-N-Nina” as if to impress the older boy.  This is a comment I still get today.  Assholes of the world–please note, this is hack stuttering material!  Even if it is in the tune of the Chia Pet jingle–I have heard and whatever I say back will sting ten times that.  If you want to make fun of me, come up with something new.  This time was different than the 7 million other times I was made fun of because Elvis did something I had never seen.  He gently knelt down to look the second grader in the eye.  He told him, “If I ever hear you say anything like that again, I am going to tell everyone that your penis is this big” and indicated with his thumb and pointer finger half an inch.

 

Naturally, I thought, “this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me!”  I don’t think anyone ever stuck up for me, besides my parents, before this point.  I always had to deal with assholes, big and small, on my own.  My friends never said anything when I was made fun of, especially in middle school where kids didn’t want to stick out their neck in opposition to group think.  This was a truly exceptional moment in the life of a seventh grade girl.  How does a girl process this event?  She has a crush on the boy for the rest of the year, and maybe even researches where he might be when she is in her 30s and single (can’t find him since I don’t know his name).

 

Besides harboring affection for this individual, I learned some important things that day.  The first is that I learned that I could stutter and live.  Before that day, I thought that I had to be fluent and there were no other options.  My speech difficulties are not severe but it is significant enough that if I chose to let it stop me, people might rationalize that this was ok for me.  In fact, it has stopped me from answering questions in groups, flirting and at times ordering at a fast food drive through window.  Stuttering in front of my entire school was the first time that I experienced that I could stutter in front of others and it could be ok.  I am sure it was difficult for my parents to allow me to participate in the ceremony, but they did and I am thankful to have had this experience.

 

The second thing I learned was that I had allies outside my parents and a few wonderful speech therapists and tutors.  My peers could be allies because they had my back.  I didn’t have to be the one who always stuck up for myself.  You really don’t know what this feels like until it happens to you.  It is a shock to know you are not alone in this way and since this time I have sought allies, although it has sometimes been a struggle to remind myself that this can be an expectation to have in a relationship.

 

Lastly, I learned something else that day about comedy.  If anyone, and I mean anyone, makes fun of me.  I do what Elvis taught me that day.  Tell them they “have a small penis.”  And no matter how touching and life changing a story might be, be a good comedian and end with dick joke!

Picture of the ceremony.

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Howard Stern’s impact on my Identity as a Woman who Stutters

I am a Howard Stern fan.  The name on my Safeway card is Nina Bababooey so that when I check out, the cashier is forced to say thank you Ms. Bababooey.  I went to a taping of America’s Got Talent just to see Howard Stern.  I sat with complete strangers where we immediately bonded and shouted as loud as we could, “F Jackie” and “four inches is fine.”  Stern made me a Lady Gaga fan and periodically makes me cry on my way to work when he and Robin talk about her struggles with cancer and the genuine affection they have for one another.  How did someone who identifies as a militant Disabled feminist become such a stern fan?  You mean the answer isn’t obvious?  Let me explain.

It all started in the late 1980s.  I was in high school.  I was a weird girl.  It wasn’t because I had a Learning Disability and stuttered?  It was because I was into unusual things that not even my unusual peers were into.  I loved comedy.  The men I were in love with were all stand up comedians with my biggest crush being Barry Sobel, a stand up comedian who got his start in San Francisco and appeared on the Tonight Show.  Not surprisingly, I was the only girl at school writing I ❤ Barry Sobel on my binders.  My high school years were spent taping comedy from HBO half hour comedy specials, watching SNL and listening to the Alex Bennett show where local comedians from the San Francisco Bay Area appeared, many who I am happy to say I have been able to work with.  My role models for women were Laverne DeFazio, not Madonna or Debbie Gibson.  The one piece missing for me was someone to look up to who had a disability similar to mine.

When I was nine years old I saw my first person, other than me, who stuttered.  It was Raider’s cornerback Lester Hayes.  He had an amazing game where he did something amazing and then he was interviewed, and that was the amazing part for me.  My dad shouted at me, “look at the TV!”  Lester Hayes was being interviewed and stuttered!  Instead of pride, I thought to myself, “tomorrow at school everyone is going to make fun of him.”  I found out the next day that no one cared.  Your accolades overshadow your disabilities.  As cool as it was to see someone stutter on TV, I didn’t relate much to him.  I didn’t care much for sports, as much as the Raiders were thrusted upon me (my brother saw my dad cry at an exhibition game when the then LA Raiders returned for one night to play the 49ers at the Oakland Coliseum).  A male football player didn’t really do it for me.  There was also country singer Mel Tillis who I love now because of his songwriting and music, but as many times as I saw Cannonball Run as a young girl, I just couldn’t relate to him.  I spent the remainder of my childhood identifying most with Porky Pig and the occasional badly acted stutterers on shows like Small Wonder where someone who stutters appeared for one very special episode.

One night when I was about 15 years old I saw him.  I was watching a show from a New York station on my local cable channel.  It was Howard Stern’s Channel 9 show.  The show was funny, but what stuck out to me was a guy on who stuttered.  He interviewed people, asking them horrible things.  They both reacted to his speech as well as the awful things he asked.  The reactions were reactions that I knew way too well and had never seen this level of my experience reflected on TV.  The person doing the interviews was Stuttering John [Melendez].  There was a very, very, very small window of time when Stuttering John was cute and he entered my life at exactly that time.  He was no Barry Sobel, but he was cute and he stuttered.  Stern, Fred (writer on the show) and others made fun of John, but it didn’t feel horrible.  It wasn’t like he was a victim in being made fun of instead it felt like inclusion.  It would have been weird for them to give him a pass and not make fun of his speech.  If Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’abate was made fun of because of his teeth and looking like Oates (from Hall and Oates), then John’s stuttering was fair game.  That’s right, the first time I saw someone on TV who stuttered who I could relate to was being made fun of on the Howard Stern show.  Since he was a recurring character, unlike the numerous other one time characters with a disability, I was able to watch every week, looking forward to someone who talked like me on TV.

Seeing Stuttering John helped me to own my stuttering.  It was the first time that I saw someone be dysfluent and it was ok–in fact even celebrated (ok, made fun of but he was part of the joke).  He purged people’s attitudes about stuttering.  I remember the day I started hating Chevy Chase.  It was when he was on the Tonight Show and he commented on Raquel Welch punching Stuttering John.  He asked if the punch cured his stuttering.  Thanks Chevy, we really want to connect violence toward stutterers with fluency.  I don’t care if National Lampoon’s Vacation is a great movie and that you were one of the first cast of Not Ready for Prime Time Players.  You are on my shit list Chevy Chase!  You can thank Stuttering John for that.

The relationship with the Howard Stern show began then.  I have been listening ever since.  About ten years after I found the channel 9 show, Stern had another stuttering first for me.  He had on a young woman who sold hot dogs out of a cart in a bikini.  She also stuttered and her name was Nina (that’s my name in case you didn’t know).  It was actually the first time on TV I saw a woman who stuttered (I was about 23 years old).  More men than women stutter (1:4 ratio in adults), so the representation of women who stutter is small, plus I don’t think the media represents us.  I sometimes think that if you have more than one identity TV executives think people’s heads will explode so representations of stuttering are usually white men.  We almost had an Asian American female who stuttered on Glee but she was faking it on the show (Glee, you are also on my shit list).  So seeing Nina the hot hot dog girl was a big deal for me.  There was misinformation in the interview like Stern saying that stuttering is a psychological problem.  He is wrong, it is neurological.  But I was able to see a woman on TV who talked like me and even stuttered on “Nina”.

Many see Howard Stern through a sexist ableist (that is the term for abled bodied bias) lens.  They hear snippets of the show that then color their entire perception of the show and Stern.  He makes fun of people with disabilities, but they are also on the show and represent holistic experiences of life.  They have sex, they can be assholes, they experience more than just being inspirational images to abled bodied people (the predominant image in our media).  On the topic of sexism and Stern I have mixed feelings.  It seems like much of the sexism now is represented in the cast of players like Ronnie the Limo Driver who objectifies women but is criticized for it.  This is different from Stern’s more shock jock persona of the 1980s.  I have seen Stern and the people on his show change.  They acknowledge the language of the disability community (and sometimes integrate it into their speech).  I have also seen the impact that this level of visibility has had.  Many times I will be asked, after I get off stage from doing stand up, “can I ask you a personal question.”  Most other situations this is bound to be something awful about curing my stuttering, but when it comes from a Stern fan, they respectfully ask, “have you ever considered contacting the Howard Stern Show.”  We immediately bond.  They have already met someone who stutters because of the Stern show, so they already know how to react (and often how not to react) to my speech.  I am thankful to Stern for including people like me.  Of course, I don’t speak for all people who stutter.  Some might be extremely offended in Fred mocking Stuttering John’s speech, but for me, when there is genuine love for one another some making fun is ok because it can express affection (perhaps it is an Italian thing).  It is why my good friends in comedy can mock me all they want but if you are not friends with me and we don’t have love then you too will be on my shit list with Chevy Chase and the producers of Glee.  Finding people who can fulfill your need to identify when you are a person with a disability can be difficult.  Sure, I would love to have had other options to find my identity as a woman who stutters, but they were not available.  As I always like to emphasize, when a Disabled feminist says the only place she saw herself reflected was on the Howard Stern show, you know there is great room for the media to improve.

In case you can relate to a Football player who stutters, here you go:  http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-films-americas-game/09000d5d8008cd0c/America-s-Game-1980-Raiders

Picture with Nina doing stand up, captioned: I didn’t see a real woman who stuttered on TV until I was 23 and it was on the Howard Stern show.  When a woman with a Disability who considers herself a feminist says the only place she saw herself reflected was on the Howard Stern show, you know the media could be doing a better job representing disability

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