Dysfluency in Three Modes of Belonging

Stuttering pride is starting to mature. No longer a hushed whisper that might evaporate if spoken aloud, the social movement of stuttering pride has turned to root and flower.

In this post I want to consider the growing stuttering community from the perspective of a gardener. Nietzsche, of all people, offers a starting point: “Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in [her]!” (2012,  s.382). This advice is as true for a community as for an individual. Being gardeners of ourselves implies not only noticing the variety of life and the composition of our soil, but knowing when and how to work with, build, and change soil (and other conditions), in order to sustain life.

The stuttering community faces both challenges and potentials in this moment that we ought to reckon with. The potential for social transformation is palpable: fluency be damned, the imagination of the stuttering community is starting to crack wide open. “Disability desired differently” (Fritsch, 2015, 43) is a torrent, a force of nature that is reshaping long-sedimented exclusions. But the challenges are equally obvious: the stuttering community houses a plurality of political goals that coexist in both spoken and unspoken tension. Desire for final cure, therapy, fluency, self-help, acceptance, accommodation, pride, disability justice, and social transformation flicker together with many tongues. Given the many different types of plants now bursting forth in the stuttering community, I want to offer a type of map to think about collective soil; a naming of three conceptual territories that have amassed within our community at this moment in time: curative belonging, inclusive belonging, and transformative belonging.

Why focus on belonging? Members of stuttering communities desire a variety of things: for example, to experience less stuttering-based discrimination; to practice more autonomy; to hear stuttered speech in the world and feel that dysfluency has a home; to order food one desires; to have better education and employment opportunities; to be unchoked by time; to create a world that stutters more; to experience less shame and more joy in speaking; to make important relationships; to have community; to have meaningful participation in social and political spaces.

I argue that a common thread that winds its way through each of these various examples is belonging, a concept that has both an external and internal side. Externally, belonging describes the web of connections that knit people into a shared world. Internally, it refers to “a subjective feeling that one is an integral part of their surrounding systems, inducing family, friends, school, work environments, communities, cultural groups, and physical spaces” (Hagerty et al. 1992, emphasis added). Because belonging can take many different forms, and because, as I argue, some modes of belonging make better soil for (dysfluent) flourishing than others, I believe it is worth thinking carefully about the various ways that stuttering beings can (or cannot) belong in the world.

Curative Belonging

For many folk, curative belonging is ground zero, the basic and default orientation towards disability (and thus stuttering) that we inherit from an ableist culture. Curative belonging states: “you can belong and have a place within the world to the degree you can be cured” — i.e. embody a normative human form. For people who stutter, curative belonging entails a promise conditioned upon fluency. “If you can speak like a (proper) human, then you get to be counted and treated as one.” We come by this mode of belonging—of cruel exclusion outlined by ableism—very honestly. Speech has always been tangled up with questions of reason and the boundaries of the human community, while disability itself has long (e.g. within moral and scientific-medical literatures) been depicted as an obstacle to true and full humanity; disability is a status of sub-humanization. Here we find the legacy of eugenics, and the notion that disability is by very definition a burden—upon the individual, yes, but more vexingly upon the survival of society, the nation-state, and the human species itself. In the mode of curative belonging, the dysfluent must prove we are no burden upon life to find belonging in its midst.

When it comes to stuttering, evidence of curative belonging is easy to spot. Of the many things they are, Speech-Language Therapists are a kind of immigration officer with power to gatekeep the human community and who, moreover, possess technical knowledge that can rehabilitate the lucky few into the ranks of fluency. From fluency shaping, to pharmacology, to the SpeechEasy, technical devices and therapeutic techniques that aim at fluency trade in (and thus validate and circulate) the currency of curative belonging.

Inclusive Belonging

Inclusion plays with a different set of rules. While cure imposes an indiscriminate standard of normalcy to define (and police) the boundaries of a community, inclusive belonging states: “you—whoever you are!—can belong to the degree you can be included within an existing system . . . without breaking or altering it.” To have access to medical, economic, or legal systems, disabled people regularly contort themselves to fit designs made for able-bodied folk. If curative belonging is imagined as a series of steps where only the best can arrive at the top, inclusive belonging slaps down a smooth ramp and hoists a “welcome all” banner. Inclusion works not in the mode of “in/out,” but the mode of “differential belonging” where one belongs (and can be excluded) in parts, pieces, and degrees. In other words, the catch with “smooth belonging” (Hamraie, 2017, 99) is that the ramp is slippery: all, in theory, are welcome, but not all of who a person is can make it to the top. “Normal” parts of disabled folk (if there are any) can be included within existing systems, but the weird, unruly, and disruptive parts of disability necessarily fall to the floor of inclusion.

Disability inclusion thus turns on a risky move: “in all that matters, we are normal—we are the same just like you!” Smoothness, never friction, is the name of the game. The metaphors of “sanding down” and “contortion” well describe the movement towards inclusive belonging. In the name of inclusion, stutterers hide, tame, explain away, and/or excuse their unruly speech. The rallying call that “stuttering is normal” rings with the hope of inclusive belonging. In the mode of inclusive belonging, stutterers can aspire to have stuttering “accepted”—i.e. tolerated—by a dominant society. While being included or tolerated is better than outright exclusion, it leaves so much to be desired. For one, toleration sets up a hierarchy between the virtuous doing the tolerating and those who need to be tolerated. What belonging can the state of “being tolerated” really support? Moreover, what integral connection can a stutterer have with ourselves when “acceptance” of stuttering is the highest recourse we have been taught to imagine?

Transformative Belonging

What I want for our community is to explore a more expansive imagination than inclusive belonging can offer. Transformative belonging is an invitation—a Crip invitation—to belong through the collective act of transforming the conditions of our belonging. In other words, if cure and inclusion dangle belonging on a stick and declare “these are the basic terms, take them or leave them,” transformative belonging grows in the possibilities of collectively altering, when, why, where, how, and what it means to belong in this world. We here find belonging in the process of collectively altering the world; belonging is no longer a destination found once transformation has occurred.

The path towards transformative belonging is inseparable from the path of disability justice. Mia Mingus (2011) writes:

“We need to think of access with an understanding of disability justice, moving away from an equality-based model of sameness and “we are just like you” to a model of disability that embraces difference, confronts privilege and challenges what is considered “normal” on every front. We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.”

Each in their own way, cure and inclusion make belonging conditional upon accessing privilege. Cure exclaims “only the worthy can reach the top!” while inclusion masks while upholds this privilege: “we are all normal; we are all the same!” Without confronting privilege, accessibility, just like belonging, turns self-serving, performative, and cancerous: access for the sake of access; belonging for the sake of belonging.

Consider again the idea that “stuttering is normal.” The simple phrase is actually quite complex since “normal” refers at once to statistically common or routine forms of life, as well as socially desirable forms of life (that typically bestow social privilege). In the second sense (normalcy=social desirability), to be normal is to be “recognized by our own community and our peers as belonging, as fitting in, as being ‘one of the gang’” (Kittay, 2006, 93). The claim that “stuttering is normal” or “stuttering is cool” is thereby a political assertion that seeks to position stuttering as a desirable form of life (that can sustain belonging) by appealing to what is common and intelligible. However, as Kelly Fritsch (2015, 45) insists:

“Challenging the undesirability of disability requires more than individualised access to education, employment, or vibrant social lives. Challenging the undesirability of disability requires that disability be imagined differently, that is, imagined in ways that ensure that disability can be collectively practiced and experienced differently.”

From a disability justice perspective, stuttering is anything but normal; dysfluency is desirable precisely because it is a transgressive form of communicating within a world that privileges (and bestows privilege upon) communicative normalcy. Transformative belonging is thus not an invitation to desire stuttering more (to desire more of what already exists), but to desire stuttering differently—to imagine and enact dysfluency as a desirable difference in itself (Overboe, 1999). It is in confronting fluency and challenging the very idea of communicative normalcy, in taking joy in dysfluency as an “non-compliant and anti-assimilationist” force of life (Fritsch and Hamraie, 2019, 2), that transformative belonging can take root. In this way, we come to belong through our stuttering and collective struggle, yes, but only if we understand that “struggle” is expansive and includes dreaming, dysfluently, of a world that stutters more.

By Joshua St Pierre

Photograph of Josh St Pierre sitting in a punt on the river in Oxford. He is pictured sitting centrally, smiling to camera, wearing a grey jumper and blue jeans. Behind him the punter, a woman in a black jumper and jeans, is looking backwards as she pushes against the river bed with a pole.

Joshua St. Pierre is Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Critical Disability Studies and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Working at the intersection of critical disability studies, contemporary political theory, and feminist theory, his research focuses on the interplay of communication and disability within information societies. His first monograph is published by the University of Michigan Press and is titled Cheap Talk: Disability and the Politics of Communication.

Works Cited

Fritsch, K. (2015) “Desiring Disability Differently: Neoliberalism, Heterotopic Imagination and Intracorporeal Reconfigurations.” Foucault Studies 19 (June): 43-66.

Fritsch, K & Hamraie, A. (2019) “Crip technoscience manifesto.” Catalyst: Feminism, theory,  technoscience 5(1), 1-33. https://doi.org/10.28968/cftt.v5i1.29607

Hagerty et al. (1992) “Sense of Belonging: A Vital Mental Health Concept.” Archives of Psychiatric Nursing June 6 (3):172-7. doi: 10.1016/0883-9417(92)90028-h. PMID: 1622293.

Hamraie, A. (2017) Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Kittay, E. (2006) “Thoughts on the Desire for Normalcy.” in Surgically Shaping Children: Technology, Ethics, and the Pursuit of Normality, ed Erik Parens, 90-103. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Mingus, M. (2011) “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice” Leaving Evidence. https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/changing-the-framework-disability-justice/

Nietzsche, F. (2012) Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. s. 382.

Overboe, J. (1999) “’Difference in Itself’: Validating Disabled People’s Lived Experience.” Body and Society 5.4.