Embracing a stutter and making ‘your words count’


Photo Courtesy of themarmeladegypsy.com

Sharon Emery has embraced her speech impediment and hopes her listeners will too. She’s a journalist and has hosted a Ted Talk.

Sierra Okoniewski, Staff Reporter

Sharon Emery has come to expect awkward reactions when she speaks. But she’s discovered that the fault isn’t hers – the problem is with her listeners.

Emery, a public relations specialist for Truscott Rossman, is a long-time stutterer. Her language is sprinkled with bouts of repeated sounds and syllables, interjected between every few words.

According to The Stuttering Foundation of America, this speech disorder affects 1% of people worldwide. Genetics, child development, neurophysiology and family dynamics are factors that influence the condition.

Though stutterers as adults are rare, Emery isn’t hiding her impediment. She’s embracing it, and she’s asking that her audiences do the same.

“Listeners – I call them disabled listeners – are so caught up in their own discomfort when I stutter that it’s all they’re thinking about,” Emery said during a TEDx conference in Lansing. “My real concern is the point at which you stop reacting to me and actually to listen to me. My deepest fear is that you never do.”

Emery suggested that the stigmas of disfluency come from listeners’ anxiety. The pain felt by the audience of a disabled speaker reflects their inability to receive an unfamiliar form of communication.

“My stutter appears to take up your entire auditory capacity,” she said. “You ask me questions I’ve already answered. Or you anxiously wait for me to stop speaking – totally deaf to the meaning of my words – looking only to fill up the silence with your own big, fluent voice.”

To combat the social norms of speech, Emery challenged her onlookers to refute ignorance at every opportunity.

“My stutter is my accent,” she said. “Don’t try to take it away from me by supplying the word I’m working to say. When you do that, you take away my power.”

An international survey by Minnesota State University found that those polled believed individuals with a stutter to be incapable of careers that require consistent verbal communication.

By this standard, Emery is breaking the rules. The award-winning former journalist has over 20 years’ experience in communication fields.

“Can you only be successful and famous without a stutter?” she asked. “What kind of inspiration is that?

In fact, the list of well-known stutterers is a long one. The Stuttering Foundation of America catalogues dozens of influential people who struggled with the disability, includingWinston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, and Shaquille O’Neal.

True to the success of these legacies, Emery argued that accomplishment does not rely on the absence of impairmentRather, she insisted, it is indicative of a person’s ability to make every word matter.

“If you’re going to add your voice to the communication deluge, don’t abuse language by rendering it meaningless,” she said.

Emery expressed her amazement at the needless verbiage often used to illustrate subjects of littletono importance.

“Stutterers don’t waste their time on empty banter because it’s not worth the effort required to produce it,” she said. “They have to be ready for when their voices are truly needed. Fluent speakers should be just as judicious – so that’s your final challenge. Make darn sure your words count for something.”