Barry Yeoman On Self-Advocacy and a New Generation of People Who Stutter
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
"There was a new generation of young people who stutter, who thought like I did, who did not see stuttering as something that needed a cure, and who were even having conversations about how we and how the world around us benefits by the presence of our stutter." – Barry Yeoman
When I was given the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation about stuttering with Barry Yeoman, I’ll admit I felt intimidated.
After all, it isn’t every day that you write an article about one of the country’s most well-regarded non-fiction writers.
Yeoman, the lauded investigative journalist, is an international powerhouse in the world of journalism. He has won numerous awards throughout his accomplished career and is a popular lecturer at Duke University and Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
He is also a person who stutters.
Plus, his involvement in the larger stuttering community has been a source of inspiration for people who stutter and their allies for the past several decades.
Yeoman has been a keynote speaker for both the NYC Stuttering Conference and the FRIENDS virtual convention. His articles about stuttering, including “Stammer Time: Stutterers reach beyond the medical model of disability” and “For some people who stutter, fluent speech is overrated” have been instrumental in driving the conversation around stuttering to one of self-love and self-acceptance.
His overarching message? Stuttering is a gift – not just for people who stutter, but for us all.
This mindset is a radical shift from the idea that stuttering is an inherently negative communication problem that needs to be fixed.
Yeoman’s words and example have hit home with thousands of people who stutter. In fact, it was during my last formal interview with Adam Perry (“Death or Glory”), that Yeoman’s name was invoked as someone I needed to speak with in order to understand the changing tides that are taking place within the stuttering narrative.
Perry credited Yeoman’s message with helping him to be more open about stuttering, as well as for helping him to feel empowered and grateful as a person who stutters.
Perry was on to something. My conversation with Yeoman did not disappoint.
He shared a remarkable story with me this past week during our two-hour Zoom call about his experiences as a person who stutters.
Yeoman recalls that he was a late-onset stutterer. He has no memories of stuttering before the age of six or seven years old and began speech therapy in earnest around the age of nine, a time when he began to be mocked by his peers.
He describes speech therapy as being minimally helpful, with the exception of assisting him to manage one particularly persistent bully.
Yeoman says his then speech therapist advised, “Why don’t you pretend [the bully is] auditioning to play you in a movie, and tell him how good he is at playing you?” and he tried. “And after two or three times, it worked. And then he wanted to be my friend. And that was maybe the first time I really felt power.”
Yeoman describes this time of his young life as one where he was at war with his entire body, not just the parts involved with speech. Feeling in control was generally not in the cards.
In his words, “[Stuttering] was part of a greater complex of war with my body. It was like my body didn’t work – on any cylinder.”
Yeoman felt he did not belong – in his body or in any of the roles that society had pre-determined for him. He was neither athletic nor interested in girls. He considered himself a “nerd” and, although not one of the cool kids, he found success academically, with a close group of like-minded friends, and as editor for the school newspaper. He aspired to journalism from an early age, but his upwardly mobile Jewish upbringing encouraged a future career as a doctor or lawyer.
Without adults telling him he could succeed with a stutter, he entered college as a psychology major. Yeoman chuckles as he tells me this lasted all of three days before he switched his major to journalism.
This is when his story starts to shift gears. Going to college in New York and finally pursuing his lifelong dream, Yeoman began to realize he had agency and that he no longer had to fit into the ill-fitting box of his youth. He says he finally felt “alive.”
Yeoman came out as a gay man. He also found that he was in fact athletic and had a passion for long-distance bike riding, at times cycling up to 120 miles a day. And when he embraced his true nature, everything else began to fall into place. Suddenly he felt in control of his body.
He says, “Blossoming was a tiered process, a step by step process, with my stutter being pretty much the last of these steps.”
While he was coming into his own, making strides with stuttering was slow to follow.
At the age of 18, Yeoman began to see the well-known speech therapist Dr. Martin Schwartz. Schwartz promoted a philosophy that people who stutter are responsible for success (or lack thereof) with attaining fluency. He advocated for the assiduous application and daily practice of techniques, notably using passive airflow.
Yeoman was able to achieve fluency in therapy sessions with Schwartz but unable to maintain it outside of therapy. And as he puts it, “If you could not remain fluent, it was your fault.”
Yeoman clarifies, “It planted the seed that fluency was possible, but only if I did things right. And that if I didn’t, it was my fault. That put additional stress on me…and I got more frustrated. And that not only probably made me stutter more, but also made me fairly unpleasant to be around if you were a speech therapist. I mean, I was really resistant.”
Through college and a series of relocations, Yeoman continued to work on his speech and see a number of different speech therapists for a period of about 10 years. But despite the work and dedication, his speech did not improve.
By the age of 27, his frustration with therapy increased to the point where he describes shaking and clenching the steering wheel of his car while driving to a speech therapy appointment. Rather than helping him, speech therapy was pushing him to feel angry and disconnected from his life.
Finally, he said “screw it” and quit. And as soon as that happened, something remarkable followed.
He began to stutter less. It sounds counterintuitive, but working toward the impossible goal of perfect fluency and not reaching it had been compounding his stress. That triggered more stuttering.
Yeoman learned an important lesson. In his words, “You have to be the Zen master who will only start to improve when you no longer care about improving. It is one of the contradictions that is inherent to stuttering.”
Around this same time, while working as a journalist in a job he adored, Yeoman attended an office holiday party. He says the wife of a co-worker approached him, “bent his ear,” and slyly suggested that he should write about his stutter.
Up until this point, stuttering was not something he discussed with others. It was a source of pain and frustration and Yeoman kept these feelings to himself. He was disconcerted by her suggestion and quickly blew it off.
The next year at the same party, his co-worker’s wife approached him yet again with the same remark. This time, the idea stuck.
Shortly after the party, when a weekly column fell through and he was under pressure to come up with a quick column for his editor, he wrote about his stuttering for the first time.
An extraordinary thing happened. The column was published and he received an overwhelming response. Yeoman describes his mail carrier as being inundated with letters for him in reaction to the column. The replies came from colleagues, and from strangers.
Letters came in droves, not just from people who stutter but also from people who had other disabilities and felt the same kind of prejudice and frustration that he had so eloquently articulated. Yeoman once again felt a sense of power. He was affirmed in his experiences and suddenly in control of his stuttering narrative. He also realized he was not alone.
Three years later, in search of connecting in-person with the greater stuttering community, he attended his first international stuttering conference in San Francisco. It was his first experience of being in a room with a lot of other people who stutter.
He immediately lights up recalling this memory. “It was the cool kids! There was this notion of us in control of our destiny. This was our organization…led by people who stutter, for people who stutter. It was our house, and that was the house I needed.”
Yeoman describes hearing Kare Anderson (also a highly accomplished journalist who stutters) speak at this conference, something he also wrote about in his “Stammer Time” article. He says, “It was the first time I heard anyone describe stuttering as a gift.” Yeoman shares this quote from Anderson, one which he says deeply impacted him:
“As stutterers, we were specially trained to give people insights into themselves, to make people more patient—with themselves, not us.”
Yeoman continues, “That was liberatory. It felt like I could start viewing stuttering not as a burden.”
He then tells a heart-warming story about going out to dinner after the conference with a group of people who stutter, eight in total including two Americans, two Poles, and four Germans. The server was so “freaked out” by the group of people stuttering that she made them pre-pay their meal.
Yeoman reminisces, “And we didn’t care! We threw down sangria and talked about things like what it was like to be in Berlin when the Wall fell. And we stuttered without shame. The love at that table was something different from all the other loves I’ve experienced. It felt closer to family than family itself.”
He notes that he has remained close friends with several people he met at that conference to this day. His time at the conference in San Francisco was a huge step for him towards self-love and self-acceptance as a person who stutters, and would transform his perspective about stuttering.
Yeoman describes the years that followed as “a period of great awakening” and “the last big piece of the puzzle” of taking back control of his body.
As he began to stutter more comfortably and openly, so did his relationships within the stuttering community flourish. He spent more than two decades strengthening his friendships with people who stutter, working with stuttering organizations, and traveling to different stuttering conferences around the world.
Then in 2015 at a National Stuttering Association conference, a highly edited presentation was given. Complete with soaring music and touching montages, it promoted new research paving the way towards a possible “cure” for stuttering.
Yeoman, and many of his friends and fellow attendees, had mixed reactions to this news. He explains that there was a growing movement of people who stutter and do not want stuttering to be cured or eradicated. They see stuttering as a form of verbal diversity, and neurodiversity, that the world needs.
By then he had discovered that “there was a new generation of young people who stutter, who thought like I did, who did not see stuttering as something that needed a cure, and who were even having conversations about how we and how the world around us benefits by the presence of our stutter.”
He shares some of these sentiments, including the following which he credits to his friend Chris Constantino: “He talks about stuttering naked – that when you stutter, you cannot hide your imperfections. And what it means is that you are suddenly stripped naked of your pretensions, which invites the other person to do the same, and creates and allows for a kind of intimacy with friends; with acquaintances; with strangers – that you wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Yeoman also references Emma Alpern, another role model in the stuttering community who finds pleasure in stuttering. “Part of it is physical: the exhilaration of stuttering, that little loss of control that resolves itself so beautifully sometimes,” Alpern wrote in the book Stammering Pride and Prejudice. “I am falling through the air for an instant, then catching the ground again, like Fred Astaire pretending to trip when he dances.”
I ask Yeoman if he too ever feels pleasure in stuttering?
“It’s a hard one for me,” he replies. “Every so often, in a public event, I’m giving a speech and I’ll come back and say, ‘Wow, I stuttered wicked!’”
We both laugh. It does sound wonderful, this idea that you can stutter comfortably and that the cadence of an effortless stutter is beautiful, pleasurable for both speaker and listener. I had never heard this articulated before but I have felt it as a listener.
This, by the way, is the magic of speaking with a word master such as Barry Yeoman: his ability to communicate that which I have felt but have not had the ability to express.
Another way that stuttering benefits the world? He mentions Josh St. Pierre, an historian and co-founder of the Did I Stutter Project. Yeoman paraphrases St. Pierre’s perspective, that “[Stuttering is] a big ‘fuck you’ to clock time and thus to capitalism. And I love that critique, because who among us has not had our lives made more stressful by the presence of clock time?...And saying, ‘We’re not going to listen to your stinking clock, you’re going to listen to me until I’m done talking’ is also liberating.”
All of these individuals – Constantino, Alpern, and St. Pierre – Yeoman holds up as examples of the radical shift happening in the conversation about stuttering.
If stuttering should not be cured, if there is beauty and benefit from having stuttering in our world, I ask him what does he see as the role of the speech therapist who treats stuttering?
Yeoman’s response? “It seems like a well-informed, sympathetic, non-cure-oriented speech therapist is often the first line of defense in getting somebody to rethink stuttering, rethink their goals for therapy, and start to actually develop the skillset to meet those goals.”
Yeoman explains that not everyone can attend stuttering conferences or connect with others who stutter, and when it comes to working with a client who may be isolated, it is a speech therapist’s job to teach tools that reduce struggle and tension, to provide resources and information about stuttering, and to promote and encourage community for and by people who stutter.
He holds this last point up as his biggest piece of advice for people struggling with stuttering: No matter where you receive the support, “you cannot do it alone.”
“Find your pack,” he states. He goes on to say we are social creatures and the same rule of thumb applies to anyone who is part of a misaligned or misunderstood group, such as the LGBTQ community. He comments that we always need to find others like ourselves who can be mentors and role models.
Along that vein he says, “My hope is mostly to mentor the next generation.” He seems well on his way.
Before we end our call, I ask Yeoman if there is anything we did not touch on, anything important he wishes to convey about stuttering. He sits thoughtfully for a moment.
Then he remarks, “I think the next collective step for the stuttering community is going to be in the area of self-advocacy.”
He speaks quite passionately about how the Americans with Disabilities Act happened because of activism, because of people with disabilities occupying buildings and blocking traffic. Yeoman acknowledges that speaking up is by nature “scary” for people who stutter but also necessary to advance social progress.
In closing he says, “I think it’s the next horizon and I think it’s where we will find our voice in the way that other disability groups have found their voices.”
“This is the time.”