Over the next few years, he became more comfortable with his speech, eventually earning a degree in speech-language pathology at New York University. Now, in addition to his speech-therapy practice, Reitzes runs the podcast StutterTalk, whose episodes have titles like “Breaking up with Fluency” and “The Stigma of Stuttering.” He speaks with “voluntary stutters”—fake, stutter-like repetitions designed to give him a sense of control. (Voluntary stuttering, although it seems counterintuitive, is a common feature of many stuttering therapies.)
“I tried so long to be happy without stuttering, but it didn’t work,” Reitzes says. “For me, talking about stuttering”—which was only possible once he stopped hiding it—“made all the difference.”
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Koroll wouldn’t take the “magic pill” now, but he didn’t always feel that way. For years, he tried a series of speech therapies, but the effects never stuck.
The turning point for Koroll came during a job interview several years after graduating college, he says, when an interviewer told him that, because of his stutter, he couldn’t hire him. Koroll sank into depression, eventually ending up in a hospital. It was there that he decided he had had enough of speech therapy.
Koroll had been going to NSA meetings and conferences for a few years, but after he let go of trying not to stutter, he threw himself into the community. Within a few years, he was volunteering as the adult-programs coordinator for the NSA, and then as the chairman of the board.
“For some people who stutter,” Koroll tells me, “this is the only time of the year when they feel safe and welcome.”
I think back to his words during the speeches at the opening ceremony, the ballroom at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront filled with an attentive crowd—no one raises an eyebrow when speakers pause (or “block”) for 15 or even 30 seconds between words. This extreme attentiveness is something I notice all week: While fluent people, perhaps in an effort to be sensitive, tend to look away when someone is stuttering, conversations here are defined by unbroken eye contact through prolonged stutters and silences.
Much of the NSA conference is about remembering that “it’s okay to stutter,” but there are conflicting messages flying around, too. Specifically, it’s hard for some people to take “We are the cure” literally when the organization also puts resources toward finding a medical cure.
“There’s this sort of cognitive dissonance,” says Chris Constantino, a stutterer and conference attendee who is working toward his Ph.D. in speech pathology. “The NSA is, on the one hand, saying it’s okay to stutter, but speech pathologists and researchers continue to try to get at the underlying cause of it so it can be eliminated.”
Others don’t feel as though the community belongs to them. “It’s very friendly with [speech-language pathology], and they’re promoting acceptance, but they still think it would be better if we didn’t stutter at all,” says Erin Schick, who blogs at the disability-rights-inspired website Did I Stutter. She’s been to NSA chapter meetings, but not the conference.