This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July/August 2023

Growing out of it

If others don't notice my stutter, can I really call myself a stutterer at all?

Isabel Armiento

An extreme close up of someone's closed lips

I was walking home from the grocery store when a well-dressed man politely stopped me to ask for directions. “Could you tell me which way to Bloor and…” He struggled to get the next word out, a pained expression on his face, but I knew better than to try to finish his sentence for him. “… Bathurst?” he finally said after several seconds of straining.

When I tried to answer, he quickly interrupted to tell me that he didn’t actually need to know. He was practicing stuttering openly, he explained, hoping to become more confident doing so around strangers. I lit up with excitement. “Are you doing that because it’s National Stuttering Awareness Day?” I asked, always eager to connect with other people who stutter. The man looked surprised and asked why I knew that, so I explained that I grew up with a stutter. He nodded, looking a bit wistful: “And I suppose your stutter has magically disappeared since then?”

His question gave me pause. I understood why he assumed this—when compared to his stutter, which was fairly severe, I sounded fluent, stutter-free. But was I? Even in the brief time I’d spoken to him, my stutter had influenced my speech: for example, I’d chosen to misname International Stuttering Awareness Day as National Stuttering Awareness Day, to avoid the tricky front vowel sound at the beginning of the word—a sound I continue to struggle with, likely because it’s at the beginning of my name. And while it’s true that my stutter was more noticeable when I was a child, this was partially because I’d since found reliable workarounds for difficult words and sounds, helping me hide the worst of it.

To answer his question, I opted for the simplest explanation: that I used to stutter but had grown out of it. But was this true? Had I really outgrown my stutter?


According to the Canadian Stuttering Association, four percent of Canadian children stutter, with three-quarters of them eventually ceasing to do so, leaving only one percent who stutter into adulthood. But what about the other three percent, the supposed ex-stutterers—can we assume they grow up to be completely free of their past disfluencies? Or on some level, do their stutters continue to influence their decisions and affect their lives?

Most people who meet me don’t notice my stutter, or they chalk it up to shyness or insecurity. But while most of the time, I don’t stutter overtly—thanks in large part to my learned knack for word substitution and assortment of ready-made circumlocutions—many of my choices are still guided by a deep fear of the disfluency that resides, dormant but waiting, on the tip of my tongue. Stutterers like me, those who can reasonably pass as fluent, are called “covert” stutterers, meaning that the most prominent features of our stutters aren’t the overt ones—the syllable repetition, prolonged sounds, and vocal blocks usually associated with stuttering—but the things we do to hide them.

Tiffani Kittilstved, a speech language therapist and lifelong covert stutterer, started stuttering as a child, though no one ever named or diagnosed her condition. Her stutter provoked negative reactions from authority figures, so Kittilstved quickly learned to hide it using a combination of whispering, changing the pitch or tone of her voice, and putting on strange accents. “I’d gotten to the point where if someone talked to me, I would cry and just not respond,” she says. When people meet Kittilstved, they might not even notice her stutter—and yet it has affected her life tremendously.

As any stutterer can tell you, vocal disfluency can deeply impact a person’s decisions. For example, most stutterers have difficulty saying their names. I struggle to introduce myself without backpacking on other words, and always respond with a rushed “My name is Isabel,” rather than just “Isabel” when asked my name, a trick that usually works, even if it often sounds clunky and awkward. My worst nightmare is a circle of strangers saying their names one at a time, and despite being a social person, I generally avoid situations where I have to meet many new people at once.

This is a common experience for stutterers, and one that can complicate our social and professional lives. “I can only imagine how many people think I’m an aloof bitch based on how rarely I ever introduce myself to someone new,” says Sophia Stewart, a journalist who has written much about her covert stutter. “Mostly I just don’t introduce myself unless it is absolutely imperative. I try not to think about how many missed opportunities, missed connections, and bad first impressions this has resulted in.”

All this to say, many people who supposedly outgrew their childhood stutters are still guided by their effects, both vestigial and lived. So while I may have grown out of my stutter in the sense that its severity has decreased with age, I’ve also grown out of it in the sense that it has shaped my identity, informing the way that I speak, interact with others, and move around in the world.


Between 2018 and 2021, the British Stammering Association (STAMMA) implemented a cross- sectional survey of U.K. adults and found that between two and four percent of respondents self-identified as stutterers—significantly more than the previously accepted figure of one percent. Unlike its predecessors, this study relied on self-reporting, which means that while there are far more stutterers than previously thought, many of us are hiding it—at least, those of us who can.

Being a covert stutterer is a liminal position, teetering between ability and disability. Which begs the question:is a stutter defined by one’s experience of speaking, or by the perception of the listener? If others don’t notice your stutter, can you really call yourself a stutterer at all? And if covert stutterers don’t identify with their disability, how might this affect the way they see themselves—as well as whether or not they ever come to accept it?

The social model of disability, which has been accepted and celebrated by disabled communities worldwide, defines disability by the limitations imposed upon an individual by society, rather than any supposed limitations of the individual. Stuttering, however, has been notably absent from disability discourse. As Stewart wrote in an article for The Baffler, there has been “a glaring omission of speech and vocal impairments from disability scholarship as a whole.” Most research done on stuttering is clinical, with a focus on the reduction of overt stuttering, rather than accommodation and acceptance.

But this is beginning to change. Some researchers argue that treatment shouldn’t be centered around eliminating a person’s stutter, but rather on reducing harmful thoughts and behaviours surrounding it. In a 2022 paper published in Topics in Language Disorders, researchers Tichenor, Herring, and Yaruss proposed a new framework for understanding stuttering that prioritizes the speaker’s experience over the listener’s, making room for the ways in which covert stutterers’ lives are affected by their ways of speaking. This includes their personal reactions to their stutter, including their affective reactions, such as shame, fear, or anxiety; behavioural reactions, such as avoiding certain sounds or not making eye contact when speaking; and cognitive reactions, such as ruminating about future events when they expect to stutter. In short, having a stutter is about more than just the sound of one’s speech—there are a whole host of psychological and behavioural factors at play, too.

Nevertheless, from what I’ve seen, many covert stutterers have imposter syndrome about their stutters, meaning they likely wouldn’t seek out this kind of treatment. I never asked for accommodations in school because I was convinced my stutter wasn’t “bad enough” to count, and didn’t want to have to justify my covert stutter to skeptical teachers. Of course, I regretted this decision every time I had to present a paper aloud, forced to cut out entire sections on the fly because getting the words out was taking twice as long as I’d anticipated. I wish I’d asked for alternate ways of presenting my work: a peer could have read my paper for me, for example, or I could have pre-recorded my presentation.

For some covert stutterers, this imposter syndrome is reinforced by others’ reactions. Stewart recalls being shut down when asking for an accommodation from a high school teacher who randomly called on students to answer questions. “I went to her early in the semester and told her that I didn’t feel comfortable or able to participate this way,” Stewart says, adding that she offered to work with the teacher to figure out another, more accessible way to show her engagement. “She was incredibly dismissive and basically said no. Every day I sat in her classroom in sweaty, heart-pounding terror that I’d be called on.”

In university, Stewart was granted the accommodations she requested: she was excused from “compulsory oral participation,” meaning her final grade wasn’t affected if she didn’t verbally participate in class, and she was given alternatives to oral presentations. However, this came with another set of problems. “There were some who made assumptions off of my disability requests—who quite clearly assumed I was slow or shy,” she says. The way they spoke to her was patronizing, which was frustrating for Stewart. Indeed, studies have shown that stutterers are perceived as less intelligent, articulate, and competent than non-stutterers. This is due to “disability drift,” a phenomenon Jay Timothy Dolmage explores in his 2014 work Disability Rhetoric whereby people assume that someone with one disability is also impacted by other, unrelated disabilities.

Ultimately, whether or not a covert stutterer identifies as disabled is deeply personal. “I consider disability as more of a public identity than a private one,” Stewart says. “Like, if someone asked me to describe myself, I don’t think I would list ‘disabled’ as one of my intrinsic attributes.” The label has proven useful for her, however, both because it has helped her access accommodations and because it offers others an easy foothold for conceptualizing her experience. “Disfluency in particular is not really understood by most people as an actual, neurological disability,” she says. “It’s largely seen as the product of being nervous or shy or deceitful… When I say stuttering is a disability, it helps people to understand that it’s as constant and out of my control as, say, blindness or deafness.” Not only does the “disability” label enable stutterers to better access the care they need and advocate for themselves, it can also help them find community—which is crucial for disabled people, who report being significantly more socially isolated and lonely than people without disabilities.


When you’re able to pass as fluent, “coming out” as a stutterer can be a fraught decision, and many covert stutterers conceal this part of themselves. In my most recent relationship, for example, I went four years without ever discussing it with my partner. My stutter feels like a core part of my identity, and yet it’s something I’ve generally kept private, out of fear that being open about it would change the way others see me.

While Stewart openly identifies as a stutterer now, she hasn’t always. “I have actively hid [my stutter] before, from people I cared about quite a bit,” she says. Covert behaviours save her from both social and physical strain, meaning that when possible, passing as fluent is usually the easiest option. “It is much more difficult to be disfluent than it is to be fluent,” she says. “Whenever I choose to pass, it’s for my own comfort, not for anyone else’s.”

Plus, coming out can make covert stutterers vulnerable to discrimination. When Kittilstved was applying for a major in linguistics, she approached the department head and told him about her stutter, as well as her dream of becoming a speech language pathologist. He replied that she needn’t bother apply, as the program wouldn’t accept a stutterer—according to him, parents wouldn’t entrust their child’s treatment to someone who stutters themselves. Kittilstved was crushed. “That was the first time I really told someone I stutter…and it had a really negative outcome,” she says.

Kittilstved ended up becoming a speech language pathologist anyway, applying for grad school years later at the encouragement of a supportive anthropology professor who noticed her recurring interest in the social impacts of stuttering. Nowadays, she is almost always open about her stutter, at least with people she feels safe with. “I put it on my dating profile and I bring it up in conversation pretty much immediately,” she says.

Still, the reality is that she hides her stutter in some situations. “It’s so easy to be like, ‘all your avoidance behaviors are wrong and bad, let’s just be open and stutter’…but that’s not the world we live in,” she says. “Especially when you have intersectional identities—I’m a woman, I’m queer, and I stutter and have other disabilities like ADHD, so I don’t always feel safe to be totally open…I just try to lean into the nuance of it, because it’s so complex being a marginalized person in our society.” Even as the disability justice movement flourishes, “coming out” remains a complicated choice for people with invisible disabilities.


Ever since childhood, I’ve devoured any scant media representation of stutterers I could find: Bill from It, Merry from American Pastoral, King George VI from The King’s Speech. But recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in stuttering content: essays in mainstream publications, books from Big Five publishers. Not to mention that one of the largest global superpowers has elected a person who stutters as president.

All of this has given me space to begin reclaiming my stutter and reimagining how it might fit into my identity. In addition to writing about it, I’ve also begun speaking with my family about how it impacts my life, and have even begun opening up to some of my friends. As covert stuttering gains recognition, I feel like I have permission to accept that my stutter is an intrinsic part of who I am, whether or not the people around me know it.

Covert stutterers might not see themselves in conventional disability narratives, but recovery narratives might not quite fit either. “There is no ‘recovering’ from stuttering,” Stewart says. “There’s no pill, no surgery, no way to get rid of a stutter… but there is recovering from the shame and self-hatred that stem from stuttering. So that is the recovery that I’m always focused on.”

As for me, to return to the question of whether my stutter has “magically disappeared,” I’d say no, or at least, not exactly. Yes, I’ve found ways to conceal it, but I’ll never outgrow my stutter, despite what my doctors repeatedly told my parents. But maybe I got something better than growing out of it—I grew alongside it, my identity inextricable from the way that I speak.

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