Passing As Fluent

What stammering can mean to some of us- and how it can generate mental stress over the years.. Here is a very interesting paper from ISAD, from Terry Dartnell:

I have been a popular and successful university teacher for
more than thirty years.  I have
held fellowships at the University of Otago in New Zealand, the Australian
National University in Canberra, and Sussex University in the UK.  I have held senior positions at
Adelaide University, Australia and the National University of Singapore, and I
am now the Head of Artificial Intelligence at Griffith University, Brisbane,
Australia.  I have had the
privilege of travelling the world to share my research interests with my
friends and colleagues.  I have enjoyed teaching, although I have enjoyed some sorts of
teaching more than others.  I will
come back to this in a moment. 

I have also been a covert stutterer all my life.  I am so covert that I didn’t
discuss my stuttering with anyone until I was more than thirty years old.  Then, finally, I mentioned it to my
girlfriend—which took a great effort on my part.  She was surprised, because she really
didn’t know that I stuttered. 
Everyone that I have told has been surprised.  When we had been together for many
years I finally told my wife, Wendy. 
She believed me, but she did so with difficulty, because (she said) she
had never heard me stutter.  Now it
was my turn to be surprised.  I am
good at hiding my stutter, but I do stutter and trip up, and clutter my words,
sometimes.  Surely she had heard me
do this.  No, she said, she really
hadn’t heard it.
On one occasion I inadvertently recorded myself on the
telephone (something had gone wrong with the answering machine).  I thought I was stuttering at the time
and when I played back the recording, I was.  There it was, as large as life!
“Do you see what I
mean?” I said. 
“Isn’t that dreadful?”
“Not particularly,”
she said.  “It sounds all
right to me.”
I think it did sound OK to her.  I don’t think she was patronising me.
I began seeing a psychiatrist about ten years ago for
stress-related problems.  I was
having panic attacks at night and would wake up feeling that my heart had stopped
and that I couldn’t breathe. 
I am sure that these attacks were related to my stammer.  We made absolutely no progress for five
years, and then I got up the courage and told him about my stammer.  And he didn’t believe me!  I was amazed.  I had been seeing him for stress-related problems all these
years, and when I finally told him what I thought was causing the stress, he
didn’t believe me.  So
nothing happened, and more years went by. 
Then I persuaded him to refer me to a speech therapist.  She picked the stammer at once.  (That surprised me—I didn’t think I was that transparent!)  My psychiatrist phoned her and said,
“What do you make of this? 
He thinks he has a stammer.” 
“He does have a stammer,” the therapist said.  My psychiatrist—who, to add to
the confusion, has a stammer himself—now admits that I do have a stammer,
but says I have a hysterical reaction towards it.  He may be quite right about that. 
I have related these anecdotes as a way of showing how very
covert I am, and how I can pass as fluent, most of the time, anyway.  I turn sixty this year, and have only
mentioned my stammer to a handful of people—my then girlfriend, my wife,
my psychiatrist, and the speech therapist.  I have never mentioned it to our children and I strongly
suspect that they don’t know. 
I had no contact with other stutterers until I was on research leave at
Smith College in Massachusetts last year. 
Then I got in touch with the stuttering community and came across the
word ‘covert’ for the first time.  I discovered that I wasn’t alone.
Now… if I was an overt stammerer I would probably be
wondering what all the fuss is about. 
I would think, “What’s he got to complain about?  His stammer’s not very
I completely understand this sentiment.  My stammer isn’t very bad, and I
am glad that I am not an overt stutterer. 
But there is another side to the covert story.  Some of us can pass as fluent much of the time, but we live
in abject terror of being found out. 
I probably won’t start to stammer in lectures now.  I have coped for thirty years and will
probably cope for the next five or so, until I retire.  But some of the 200 students I lecture
in first year, and some of the 80 I lecture in second year, come through to do
honours with me.  Then we are in a
small room, in a group of 5 or 6, for 2 to 3 hours of intensive discussion,
week after week, for 13 weeks.  And
then I am no longer easy-going and fluent.  I do not stammer very much, but my brain is going at 300
mph, word-avoiding, ducking and weaving. 
I am seriously frightened that I will stutter in front of them.  And it has happened.  I have difficulty with
‘re-’ words, like ‘religion’ and ‘representation.’
And it so happens that representations
are a central, unavoidable topic in the areas I teach at this level.  There is even something called
‘representational redescription,’ which, surprisingly, I have less
trouble with than the word ‘representation’ itself.  Sometimes I stutter on such words.  And when I do, my world falls
apart.  I feel it collapsing about
my head.  I am caught in an endless
spiral of ‘re-re-re-re-s,’ and I can’t pull out of it.  I am out of control.  My senses are overloaded.  And afterwards I feel foolish and
unmasked.  I feel that I have been
exposed as an impostor.  I have
lost my confidence, and now I am going to have a different relationship with
these people.  It’s
tough.  It may seem trivial and
silly, but it’s very, very tough.
That’s the downside to covert stuttering.  The higher we fly, the harder we
fall.  The more fluent we appear to
be—and are, for long periods—the harder it is when we land on our
So what should we do? 
Should we carry on trying to pass ourselves off as fluent—or
should we ‘come out and own up’ to our stammering status? 
I think that this is a difficult question, and I don’t
know the answer.  Most people in
the stammering community think we should ‘come out’, because this
will enable us to accept our stammer, rather than hiding it.  This makes a lot of sense.  We feel guilty.  We feel ashamed.  We feel that we are impostors, and
we’re afraid of being found out. 
So it makes a lot of sense to be open about it from the beginning. 
The fact remains, however, that many coverts don’t
want to declare their status.  And
there are good reasons for this as well. 
If we can pass as fluent, at least most of the time, why shouldn’t
we do so?  Nobody likes to stammer,
so if we can avoid stammering—if we can avoid publicly stammering,
regardless of the turmoil within—why shouldn’t we do so?  Overt stammerers sometimes use Speech
Easy devices, and I am sure that if there was a Speech Easy device that
provided full fluency, such stammers would use it.  Then they would pass as fluent.  In a sense they would be
fluent.  As a thought experiment we
can imagine a situation in which a totally efficient Speech Easy device is
implanted in the ear, rather like a cochlear implant for deaf people.  Arguably, someone with a cochlear
implant is no longer deaf, and, by the same token, someone with a surgically
implanted Speech Easy device would no longer have a stammer.  I am not saying that there is such a
device, of course, or that there ever will be.  But if there
was such a devise it would be foolish to say, “Own up to having a
stammer—don’t use the device!” just as it would be foolish to
say, “Own up to being deaf—don’t use a hearing
aid!”  So why should covert
stammers ‘own up’ to having a stammer, if we can avoid stammering? 
I suppose the answer is:  because our avoidance mechanisms aren’t reliable, so
that we are always afraid of being found out.
But the waters are murky here.  Suppose that our avoidance mechanisms were reliable, so that we never stammered, and suppose,
what’s more, that we knew
they were reliable, so that we felt relaxed about our speech and were not afraid
of being found out. 
Then—surely—we would be foolish not to use our avoidance
mechanisms …
But the waters are murky.  What does it mean to say that our avoidance mechanisms are
reliable, but that we still have a stammer?  If our avoidance mechanisms were reliable we wouldn’t
have a stammer!  I am assuming, of course, that the mechanisms are reliable
in the sense that we really could pass as fluent, and not, for instance, that
we just didn’t talk in certain situations.  So what does it mean to say that our avoidance mechanisms
are reliable, but that we still have a stammer?  Perhaps it means that we have difficulty in pronouncing some
words, but that we know that we can find synonyms.  Or perhaps it means that we have difficulty with some
sentence constructions, but know we can find others.  Or perhaps it means that we can pass as fluent in all the
social situations that matter, but there are some unimportant and avoidable
situations in which we can’t cope. 
(Lecturing comes easily to me, but I am no good on panels, when
difficult questions come at you out of left field.)
I don’t have any answers.  But I do think that these questions shed light on something
that at least some coverts implicitly believe—that if our avoidance
mechanisms (perhaps I should say our coping
mechanisms) were more efficient we would stammer less; and if we stammered less
we would become more confident… and if we became more confident our
speech would improve.  There is no
known cure for stammering, but some people do seem to ‘grow out of
it’.  I assume that we
don’t have their testimony, because they have moved on—they have
climbed the ladder and kicked it away behind them.  Could it be that they acquired coping mechanisms that gave
them increasing levels of confidence that fed back into their fluency, until
their stuttering faded away?  I
think that I am always striving for something like this, either consciously or
unconsciously—and I have achieved it with my lecturing.  I am confident when I lecture.  I am not afraid.  And so I don’t stutter.  (Projecting into a lecture theatre
helps as well.)  I imagine that
other coverts are similar—but I do not know, of course.  Many of us go through tantalising
periods of fluency, and I am surely not alone in hoping that one day one of
these periods will last forever. 
Is this self-delusion, or could it happen?  Can our coping mechanisms give us the confidence to speak
better, so that we are caught in the updraft of a virtuous circle that will
lift us out of our stammering?
I will finish on an upbeat note.
It is easy to feel defeated and depressed by our
problems.  I have already said that
I had to see a psychiatrist for stress-related problems, and I am sure that my
stammer is a major part of my stress. 
But there is another side to the coin.  Rather than feeling defeated by the problem, we can look at
how much we have achieved in spite of it
much we have achieved when what comes easily to others is so difficult for
us.  The poet Michael McClure said:
Freedom is to speak. 
And I fear to form
What is air and may be made in a minute.[1]
We have lived with this fear all our lives.  But we have still achieved.  All of us have achieved.  Perhaps we would have achieved more
without the stammer, but that isn’t the right perspective.  The right perspective is to see what we
have achieved, in spite of the stammer,
and how much of an achievement that really is.  I think that we should focus on this, and feel good about
Terry Dartnell
Computing and Information Technology
Griffith University
Nathan, Brisbane, Queensland 4111
Original paper at:

Comments are closed.

  1. Anonymous 7 years ago

    If you can successfully manage it, why should it cause so much mental stress? Interesting..

  2. Hemant kumar 7 years ago

    One day my younger brother returned from college and told – govt. has recruited such a person as a lecturer, who can not able to speak his own subject name properly. today one lecturer came in class and introduced himself – I will teach you Po.Po.Po.Po.Political science. All students were laughing on him.
    I started to think- it will be very hard for stammerer lecturer to teach students as all belong to rural area , not serious about study and lecturer has no practical or sessional marks in his hand in art subject so no fear of lecturer.

    After one month, again I asked to my brother – how is your political science lecturer surviving ??
    He replied – "that lecturer is getting more respect by students than any other lecturer. Students of other sections also never miss his lecturer".
    I surprised & asked – how this happened ?
    he replied – "although he stammers but he has very deep knowledge of his subject". In starting, other section students also sit in his class And raised complicate questions before him to make fun of his stuttering. But he never loose heart And answered & convinced all. Now all overwhelmed by his knowledge & respect him.


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