Speech Disability and the Privilege of Speaking Easily


Debbie says:

Until I read Rachel Hoge‘s “What Do You Call a Woman with a Speech Disability? Invisible” in Dame Magazine, I didn’t know that stuttering is four times more common in men than in women. No one knows why.

I did know that stuttering is a serious condition that affects the quality of people’s lives, but I had never thought about it in a gendered context. Hoge’s piece changed that:

My disability and gender are always impacting how others react towards me in conversation. Like most women—and most women who stutter—I have endless examples of silencing: the professors who dismissed my contributions in-class because I stuttered; the seemingly polite men who, in conversation, spoke over me or didn’t wait for me to finish speaking; or worse still, the flirting men who called my stutter cute, expecting me to be grateful that they’re willing to overlook my verbal “flaw.”

Most of the challenges I face in everyday life are a result of both my disability and gender, and are impossible to separate. For example stuttering is often misinterpreted as a sign of nervousness and weakness, a stereotype I’m also forced to contest because of my gender. It’s widely known that women are more likely to be interrupted while speaking—and this phenomenon is only amplified when you’re a woman with a speech impediment. Women are told that the only way to gain respect in everyday life, particularly in the workforce, is to speak firmly and clearly; for women who stutter, however, fluent speech cannot be conjured on-demand—especially during stressful situations. As a result, women who stutter struggle to be heard and respected more than most.

She is also clear about who can be expected to listen, and her ideas about why:

… women are much more likely to wait patiently while I speak, to allow me the time to finish my own sentences, to maintain eye-contact, and treat me with respect—even when I stutter. I have no objective data to offer on why this is the case, but if I had to propose a theory, it would be this: society has tried to silence women for centuries and women know it. Women also know how it feels to be dismissed or disregarded because of something we can’t control: gender, disability—these are predetermined outcomes. These factors exist inside our DNA, and most people are aware enough to recognize that.

Hoge identifies herself as having a master’s degree and a full-time job in her field; she is also writing an essay collection on “the intersection of disability and gender.”

This subject made me think about all of the ways that easy speech is privilege:

Easy speech (which I am very good at) is class privilege, because what we call “easy speech” is an ability to readily use the cadences, vocabulary, and pronunciations we have learned to expect from television, movies, and auditory social media. Someone who speaks very easily in their home cadences but not outside them will not be heard as speaking easily when they are not at home.

It’s education privilege, which is closely related to class privilege but not identical, because it can be learned. The first person I heard speak about having to change her language when she went back home after getting her advanced degree was bell hooks, and so many people who have exceeded the education levels of the rest of their families tell the same story.

It’s first-language privilege, or at the very least, language-fluency privilege. If I try to speak in French, the only language I can be said to know at all, I don’t sound like my English-speaking hypercomfortable, hypereducated self.

Separate and apart from the conflation of stuttering and self-confidence, nonetheless easy speech is a marker of self-confidence privilege. A person with no speech disability whatsoever can still be uncomfortable or feel out of place enough to forget words, start sentences they don’t want to finish, and otherwise miss the “easy speech” target.

And, of course, Hoge’s whole point is that it is ability privilege; some people simply cannot speak easily, and no amount of will-power or self-knowledge will change that.

All of the above privileges, and the lack of them, can intersect with gender in the ways Hoge describes; if you are a woman, you will be interrupted more. If you are a woman with any obstacles to easy speech, you will be interrupted even more, and you will have less power to stem the interrupting tide.