My Stutter, Myself

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

By Isabel Armiento from This Magazine Published Jun 21, 2024 21:48:01 IST
My Stutter, Myself illustrations by Pete Ryan

I was walking to my home in Toronto 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 look on his face, but I knew better than to finish his sentence for him.

“… Bathurst?” he said after several seconds of straining. When I started to answer, he told me that he didn’t actually need to know. He was practising 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. When the man asked how I knew that, I said 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 fairly severe stutter, I sounded fluent, stutter-free. But even as we spoke, my stutter had influenced my speech: For example, I’d misnamed 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.

And while it’s true that my stutter was more noticeable when I was a child, this was partially because I’d since found workarounds for difficult words and sounds, helping me hide the worst of it. When I answered his question, I opted for the simplest explanation: that I had grown out of my stutter. But was this true?

According to data from the Canadian Stuttering Association, four per cent of Canadian children stutter and only one per cent of people stutter into adulthood—a 75 per cent drop. But are the supposed ex-stutterers completely free of their past disfluencies? Or do their stutters continue to influence their decisions and affect their lives?

Most people who meet me don’t notice my stutter, or, if they do, they chalk it up to shyness or insecurity. While most of the time, I don’t stutter overtly—thanks in large part to my learnt knack for word substitution and assortment of ready-made circumlocutions—many of my choices are still guided by a deep fear of disfluency.

Stutterers like me, those who can pass as reasonably 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 pathologist and therapist, started stuttering as a child, though no one ever named or diagnosed her condition. She quickly learnt to hide her stutter 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 notice her stutter—and yet it has affected her life tremendously.

Vocal disfluency can deeply impact a person’s decisions. For example, most stutterers have difficulty saying their names. When asked my name, I always respond with a rushed “My name is Isabel,” rather than just “Isabel,” 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. Despite being a social person, I generally avoid situations where I have to meet many new people at once.

This common experience for stutterers 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 introduce myself to someone new,” says Sophia Stewart, a Brooklyn-based journalist who has written 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. So, while the severity of my stutter has decreased with age, it has shaped my identity, informing the way that I speak, interact with others and move around in the world. 


A 2020 survey of UK adults by the British Stammering Association found that between two and four per cent of respondents self-identified as stutterers—significantly more than the previously accepted figure of one per cent. Unlike earlier surveys, this one relied on self-reporting, which means many of us hide our stutters. 

Being a covert stutterer is a liminal position, teetering between ability and disability. Which makes you wonder: 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? 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 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 largely absent from the discourse surrounding disability.

There has been “a glaring omission of speech and vocal impairments from disability scholarship as a whole,” Stewart wrote in an article for The Baffler. Most research on stuttering is clinical, with a focus on the reduction of overt stuttering, rather than on accommodation and acceptance.

But this is beginning to change. Some researchers argue that treat-ment shouldn’t be centred around eliminating a person’s stutter, but rather on reducing harmful thoughts and behaviours surrounding it. In a 2022 paper published in the journal Topics in Language Disorders, researchers Seth E. Tichenor, Caryn Herring and J. Scott 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, 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 psychological and behavioural factors at play, too. 

Nevertheless, from what I’ve seen, many covert stutterers wouldn’t seek out this kind of treatment. I never asked for accommodations in school because my stutter wasn’t “bad enough,” and I didn’t want to justify my covert stutter to skeptical teachers. I regretted the 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: Another student could have read the paper, for example, or I could have pre-recorded my presentation.

For some covert stutterers, this attitude is reinforced by others’ reactions. Stewart recalls being shut down when she approached a high school teacher who would randomly call 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,” she says. Stewart offered to work with the teacher to figure out another 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: 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.

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 book Disability Rhetoric, whereby people assume that someone with one disability is impacted by other, unrelated disabilities. 

Ultimately, whether or not a covert stutterer identifies as disabled is a deeply personal decision. “I consider disability as more of a public identity than a private one,” Stewart says. “If someone asked me to describe myself, I don’t think I would list ‘disabled’ as one of my intrinsic attributes.”

However, the label has proven useful at times: It has helped Stewart access accommodations and it offers others an easy way to conceptualize her experience. “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,” she says.

Not only does the “disability” label enable stutterers to better access the care they need and to advocate for themselves (having a stutter may qualify you for a disability tax credit in Canada, if it is severe enough), it can also help them find community. Having that connection is crucial for people with disabilities, 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. In my most recent relationship, for example, I went four years without discussing it with my partner. My stutter feels like a core part of my identity, but I’ve generally kept it private, out of fear that 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. When possible, passing as fluent is usually the easiest option for her. “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.”

Coming out can make covert stutterers vulnerable to discrimination. When Kittilstved chose to major in linguistics, she told the department head about her stutter, as well as her dream of becoming a speech language pathologist. 

He told her that she would fail and strongly warned her against continuing—according to him, parents wouldn’t entrust their child’s treatment to someone who stutters. Kittilstved was crushed and changed her major. “That was the first time I really told someone I stutter … and it had a really negative outcome,” she says.

Kittilstved eventually did become a speech language pathologist, applying for grad school years later at the encouragement of an anthropology professor who noticed her interest in the social impacts of stuttering. Nowadays, she is mostly open about her stutter. “I put it on my dating profile and I bring it up in conversation pretty much immediately,” she says. 

She still hides her stutter in some situations. “It’s so easy to be like, ‘All your avoidance behaviours are wrong and bad, let’s just be open and stutter’ … but that’s not the world we live in,” she says. “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 … 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. 


Since childhood, I’ve devoured any media representation of stutterers I could find: Bill from It, Merry from American Pastoral, King George VI from The King’s Speech. Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in stuttering content: essays in mainstream publications, books from major publishers. Not to mention that the United States elected Joe Biden, a person who stutters, as president. 

All of this has helped me to begin reclaiming my stutter and reimagining how it might fit into my identity. In addition to writing about it, I’ve opened up to my family and some of my friends. As covert stuttering gains recognition, I feel like I have permission to accept that my stutter is 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, I’d say that my stutter has not “magically disappeared,” or at least, not exactly. Yes, I’ve found ways to conceal it, but I’ll never outgrow my stutter. But maybe I got something better—I grew alongside it, my identity inextricable from the way that I speak.


@2023, Isabel Armiento. From Growing Out of It, This (1 August 2023),

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