Abusing Stutterers: I Am Surprised and Disappointed

A prominent stutterer. She managed to be rather popular in groups despite the problem, or so I hear.

The New York Times related the story of County College of Morris student Philip Garber Jr., who stutters badly. He is also confident and inquiring, and likes to participate in class discussions, though naturally his speech problems make that process challenging for him, his teachers, and his classmates.

One instructor, an adjunct professor named Elizabeth Snyder, simply refused to call on him, and informed him that his stuttering was disruptive, and to keep his questions to himself or write them down. He reported this to the Dean, who told him that he should transfer to another class.

What? It is accepted that classes must accommodate the deaf, blind and sufferers of cerebral palsy, and that teachers should not discriminate against students with thick accents, limited vocabularies, and annoying voices, but the response to the victim of stuttering who is being discriminated against that he should find a more compassionate instructor?  Stuttering is a true and obvious disability. If it is aggravating to listeners, imagine how frustrating it is for sufferers. This isn’t a tough call or a gray area. It is the ethical duty of everyone in a stutterer’s life, especially teachers, to be tolerant and supportive.

I’ve had to cope with stutterers a couple of times as a teacher and supervisor, and once I voluntarily cast one in a musical (stutterers can sing without any problem). I didn’t have to subject myself and the production to this complication, but he was an excellent vocalist, and his stuttering wouldn’t affect the quality of the show, just make it a little more complicated to rehearse. I concluded that casting him was the right thing to do. But that meant that I and the rest of the production would have to exercise patience and tolerance, and that some time would be used up in rehearsals because of the singer’s communications problems. As it happened, he quit the show (he was also a jerk), but there was no question in my mind that it would have been wrong to discriminate against him.

If a stutterer abuses his or her status by excessive talking, that’s a separate problem from the stuttering: clear speakers also can be insensitive and monopolize meetings, classes and discussions. If the world is going to be fair and accommodating to stutterers, they should resolve to make reasonable efforts to do the same. That, according to the Times article, often translates into stutterers becoming withdrawn and not choosing to talk in groups at all, reacting to the obvious irritation of those around them. Advocates for people who stutter, the Times reports, say that the same people who accept a delay in a bus ride to load a disabled passenger are impatient with those who struggle to speak clearly. I can say with complete honesty that this comes as a surprise to me. My first experience with someone who stuttered was in grade school, and nobody had to tell me that it was a devastating handicap, or urge me to have sympathy for him. I  assumed that there were people who had no sympathy for stutterers, but I would expect them to live under a rock, not be teaching in colleges.

Garber told the paper that he would have been more understanding regarding his professor’s rebuke if she had not been so harsh. “I’ve been very lucky to never have been teased, bullied or anything, but some people who stutter completely stop speaking because of that kind of abuse,” Philip says. “People don’t think of it as a legitimate disability. They just need to learn.”

I guess they do. How disappointing.

8 thoughts on “Abusing Stutterers: I Am Surprised and Disappointed

  1. I also want to add that it impedes the image of the person who stutters by driving them to remain silent. I knew a fellow in high school who was in an advanced magnet program, but he never spoke and everyone just assumed he was a loser pothead. This one day I was sitting next to him in the bus and finally got him talking about his career plans (turns out he wants to design mechanical prosthetics), and I realized two things. First, he had a really bad stutter. Second, he was a lot smarter and more ambitious than anyone knew, because he never talked.

    He also seemed genuinely grateful to have someone to talk to, which is something I will never forget.

  2. Would you consider it ethical for the instructor suggest to a boy who wanted to answer every question to limit his comments to some specific (non-zero) number, and save the rest for afterwards? Even if the boy had a stutter?

    According to the instructor that’s what she did. She didn’t tell him not to speak, she told him to reign in the quantity.

    Also, according to Snyder, the day the student kept his hand raised for the full 75 minutes, she wasn’t taking any questions, she had a full docket to get through.

    Snyder’s response

    We don’t know all the facts, clearly. Still, I don’t think this warrants the attention it has been getting.

    • I read the follow-up story. Essentially, Snyder feels she is being unfairly treated. In the sense that she has become the poster girl for insensitive treatment of stutterers, this is true…one misguided act should not normally make one a national pariah. Thta will happen, though, when you are at the center of a controversy that illustrates an under-reported problem. Bad luck. Once it has been extensively reported, however, I can and will comment on the ethics involved. She discriminated and was insensitive and intolerant of his problem, and still is. Her “explanation” shows that. Telling him to write his questions was wrong, and diminished his status and opportunities in the class. She shouldn’t be getting death threats, but she was, and is still, wrong. Her other credentials with disadvantaged students are irrelevant—this is all PR repair work. Bottom line—she didn’t want to deal with a stutterer.

  3. Elizabeth Snyder is not the only one at fault here. The student reported the incident to the Dean. The Dean, who had an opportunity to use this incident as a teaching moment, instead told the student to enroll in another class. In doing so, he/she sent the message to Snyder, the student, and the rest of the academic community that Snyder’s actions were acceptable. Shame on him/her! If the leadership in an academic institution does not look out for what is in the best interest of the students, by creating a learning environment that is supportive and free of disability-based discrimination, one cannot expect its teachers to do more than offer up lame excuses for their bad behavior in return.

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