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Embracing a Counternarrative: Chris Constantino On Why Stuttering Is a Radical Act

“There’s nothing you can to do stop being a person who stutters. You have a choice: You can learn to live with it, and speak as easily as you can – and embrace this aspect of yourself and try to figure out ‘Is anything good about it?’ – or you can spend your whole life trying to fight it and be something that you aren’t.” – Chris Constantino
Dr. Christopher Constantino

The first thing that struck me about Chris Constantino was his genuine warmth and easygoing attitude. Before our Zoom call last week, I had only been exposed to his views through his writings. This included a blog on didistutter.org and excerpts from his latest book, Stammering Pride and Prejudice, co-authored by Patrick Campbell and Sam Simpson. His outspoken advocacy within the stuttering community has drawn both supporters and critics to the conversation around stutter-positive perspectives. It is also what drew me to interview him.


Constantino is an activist, author, researcher, and speech-language pathologist; he’s also a person who stutters. He has been a keynote speaker at many stuttering conferences, including the annual Friends convention, and is a co-host of the notable stuttering podcast StutterTalk. He is an assistant professor at Florida State University, where he teaches stuttering and counseling and also works to help his clients discover joy in stuttering.


The idea that stuttering is a form of verbal diversity that should be embraced is not a new one. Stutter-positivity and acceptance narratives have been brewing and gaining in popularity for years. However, Constantino is doing much more than pushing a “let’s love stuttering” agenda. He has been instrumental in identifying barriers that prevent stutterers from openly stuttering. He has also played a pivotal role in recognizing that there is a difference between difficulties that arise from speech and those that arise from living in an ableist society (a society that discriminates in favor of able-bodied people).


I was curious to uncover the personal story behind Constantino’s passion and leadership in our field. Also, I wanted to make sense of where we as speech therapists best fit within a stuttering narrative where “treatment” may not be the appropriate course of action.


Constantino grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York. The oldest of four brothers, three of whom stuttered, he describes stuttering as a daily part of their household. He started stuttering late, around 6 years old, and remembers that his stuttering at that time was easy and relaxed. He doesn’t recall much physical struggle or tension, or even anxiety, about his stuttering. He had speech therapy for articulation but stopped in the fifth grade because he didn’t like being pulled out of class.


In middle school, his stuttering increased and became a more noticeable aspect of his speech. Constantino remarks of that time, “I remember feeling like I had this huge weight that I was trying to manage while navigating all of my social interactions, and that I had to keep my stuttering as hidden as possible.” Hiding stuttering led to more physical distress and struggle with his speech.


Constantino continues, “I had a running list in my head of people who I thought knew that I stuttered and people who didn’t know that I stuttered – and I tried to keep as many people on that ‘didn’t know’ list as possible.”


He also became more defensive as stuttering began to consume his thoughts, but not because of bullying. Constantino remembers that friends might say something because they were curious, or would laugh to break the tension, but he didn’t feel directly targeted. In response to their reactions, he would explain that he had a stutter. For the most part, his peers were supportive. Constantino explains, “It was more in my head that I didn’t think it was very cool to be stuttering.”


His parents and family were also supportive. When he reaffirmed his desire to forgo therapy – thinking he could manage stuttering on his own – there was no pushback. Constantino comments that as the years went on they would ask about therapy every once in a while, but he continued to reject the idea. He also felt he was doing an adequate job of hiding how much his stuttering bothered him. Until one day in high school, when his grandmother phoned.


She had been watching a segment on a daytime talk show and heard about the SpeechEasy, a delayed auditory feedback device that was supposed to improve fluency for people who stutter. She called and asked if it was something he might be interested in. It wasn’t the SpeechEasy device that caught his attention but the fact that his grandmother was worrying about his speech. Constantino notes, “It made me think I’m not fooling people as well as I think I am. If my grandmother wants me to do this, maybe I should give it a shot.”


It wasn’t easy to procure a SpeechEasy. Constantino and his parents had to take the train down to Manhattan to find a specialist. The specialist recommended that the best course of action would be to pair the device with speech therapy. He left Manhattan with a plan to give the SpeechEasy a try and begin therapy closer to home.


Fortunately, Constantino found a speech therapist who had extensive experience both with the SpeechEasy and with stuttering therapy. She focused on desensitization to stuttering and together they began to uncover and “peel back” the feelings that had led to his internal and physical struggles with stuttering.


For the first time in his life, Constantino finally connected to therapy and to his speech patterns. He became more open about his stuttering. He also found that this cognitive approach was more helpful than speech strategies or any short-term benefit he gained from the SpeechEasy. Like many others who stutter, he realized that the less he tried to hide or fight his stuttering, the easier his speech became.


His therapist recommended that he attend a local Friends workshop for people who stutter. At the workshop, he heard adults stutter for the first time in his life. Constantino describes this as the moment when he truly understood that stuttering would not go away: “I remember never hearing an adult stutter [before] and being like, ‘Shit, he’s still stuttering.’ I didn’t realize that happened. I thought this was going to go away. It rocked my world.” He came to understand that he was going to stutter for the rest of his life and that, given this reality, self-acceptance was imperative.


I interrupt him here because his reaction surprises me. Didn’t he grow up in a household where two of his brothers also stuttered? Wasn’t it a part of everyday life to hear others stutter? Constantino clarifies for me that, while his brothers stuttered, they didn’t stutter as much as he did. For example, his grandmother didn’t recommend the SpeechEasy for them, only for him. Also, they were just kids. He assumed they would all grow out of it.


In addition, the brothers didn’t really talk about stuttering together. He elucidates further, “I don’t know if this is just a teenage-boy thing or a human thing. It’s like we don’t know how to talk about our emotions…In retrospect, I wish we had talked about it more. I think there could have been a lot of solidarity there and potential brotherly bonding.”


Constantino notes, too, that despite stuttering more than his younger brothers, his time in therapy had led to him being more open about stuttering than they were. Later in life he was shocked to discover that his brothers had some “intense avoidance behaviors,” such as driving hundreds of miles to do an interview rather than doing the interview by phone.


He makes the connection that it is precisely because he had more pronounced stuttering that he ultimately sought therapy, while his brothers did not. On this he explains: “I feel like human beings can tolerate a lot of suffering, a lot of pain and a lot of annoyance. And it really needs to reach a high level for us to do anything about it…and you know, it’s so much easier not to change something.”


The experiences that Constantino had with his last speech therapist were what initially fueled him to become a speech-language pathologist. He chuckles as he comments that his therapist had a pretty good gig working from home, just talking to people. Yet it wasn’t a career path that he thought was available to him because he stuttered. In his words, “I was worried people wouldn’t trust me as a speech therapist. They would hear me talking and think, ‘If he talks like that, how’s it going to help my child?’ or ‘How’s it going to help me?’”


He ended up enrolling in an undergraduate program for mechanical engineering. Shortly after graduation, his initial aspirations held firm. He still wanted to become a speech therapist, so instead of starting work as an engineer, he entered a clinical doctorate program at the University of Pittsburgh for communication disorders. There, he discovered that he enjoyed research as well as clinical work. He dropped out of the program after getting his master’s degree and started a PhD program at the University of Memphis to pursue academia.


During the PhD process, he spent a lot of time interviewing subjects who were covert stutterers and could pass as fluent speakers. Constantino wondered why they spent so much energy hiding their stuttering and thought, “This is evidence of ableism. People are picking up on narratives in society that devalue stuttering…They have to comply with these narratives.”


His research confirmed that his subjects had unexpected agency when it came to their speech. They were aware that they were trying to hide their stuttering. They were also aware of society’s expectations. They weren’t “victims,” but rather were consciously playing society’s game – a game that rewards fluency. Constantino expounds, “They felt like, ‘This is how I have to speak, and it’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.’”

Constantino was sitting on all of these ideas and realized that there was a common thread in their stories: that, despite an intellectual understanding that their stuttering would be easier if they were accepting and open, it was incredibly hard to put the concept into practice. Constantino then wondered, “What barriers are in place in society that are actually making our individual experiences more difficult?”


From a therapist’s perspective, Constantino wanted to help his clients understand why they felt the need to hide their stuttering and to challenge this presupposition. “Something I tell my clients often is [that] stuttering is easier if you have a reason to do it. We have to figure out what our reasons are, and we have to figure out why stuttering is important for us.”


Society was telling them that they shouldn’t stutter. What kind of counternarrative could they create that would allow them to stutter openly, without fear of retribution?


Constantino began by considering the advantages of stuttering. He says it isn’t just that in overcoming an obstacle like stuttering, it builds strength of character. After all, everyone faces obstacles in life, not just people who stutter. However, stuttering is unique in that it “strips us of our pretensions.”


As an example of this, Constantino describes an adolescent who reported that he has an easier time making friends because he stutters. Stuttering gives him something personal to talk about, which immediately opens the door to more meaningful interactions. After disclosing that he stutters, this adolescent will then remark, ‘[Stuttering] was one thing I just told you about myself, now tell me something about yourself.’


Constantino concurs with this view, “I’ve had so many conversations where a perfect stranger has felt comfortable approaching me because they’ve heard me stuttering…not only would I not have been talking to this person, [but] had I not been stuttering, I wouldn’t know the embarrassing, scary, or sad thing that they just shared with me.”


Another positive of stuttering? He says, “[Stuttering] can be fun and interesting. It’s always a surprise when it happens. It’s sort of like this little injection of whimsy into every conversation.”


Still, he acknowledges that no matter the spin you put on stuttering, it isn’t always easy to focus on the positive. Constantino observes, “I don’t think stuttering is all rainbows and butterflies. That’s exactly why I’m interested in trying to alter that experience, to figure out how we can change these social discourses, so that the experience of stuttering for everybody is easier.”


To that end, Constantino recently co-authored the ground-breaking book Stammering Pride and Prejudice, a collection of stories and artwork by people who stutter. The book documents the prejudice that people who stutter experience every day, and is a mix of academic and personal stories.


In response to its publication, Constantino received feedback that was primarily positive but also had its naysayers. On the positive side, there were many stutterers who reported feeling empowered by the book. It made them consider their stuttering in a new, more appreciative light.


The criticism he faced was from those who felt that their negative experiences with stuttering were being delegitimized by such a strong push towards self-acceptance. To them, Constantino clarifies, “all of their pain and suffering, rather than validating it, we’re lessening it or ignoring it.”


So I ask him, what is your response to that? For example, what do you do for a client who comes in with a lot of negative feelings about stuttering, or for the person who just wants to stop stuttering?


His reply? “There’s nothing you can to do stop being a person who stutters. You have a choice: You can learn to live with it, and speak as easily as you can – and embrace this aspect of yourself and try to figure out ‘Is anything good about it?’ – or you can spend your whole life trying to fight it and be something that you aren’t.”


He further adds, “[Consider that] all the negatives from stuttering might not be stuttering’s fault, but how society treats it. It’s because of the way the culture is treating you, and the answer to that is not to [be fluent], it’s to fix the culture…If you feel badly about stuttering, it’s not because you are weak or anxious…The environment we’ve grown up in has made stuttering really, really hard.”


Constantino recognizes that not all people who stutter want to self-advocate. Nor do they all need to agree that stuttering is a positive. He also understands that the strength of a social movement is dependent upon its participants’ diversity of views. He says, “If a social movement depends on homogeneity of thought, then that’s not a movement I want to be involved in, because I think it’s fragile.”


He is, however, adamant that social change needs to happen. Society as a whole needs to reject ableism and learn to value difference, and that includes learning to value stuttered speech. Without activism and advocacy, that change will be slow to come.


I ask him, what can people who stutter do, aside from model self-acceptance, to help drive this shift away from ableism?


He responds with the observation that there are a lot of people who stutter but many people have never heard stuttered speech. That means most people who stutter are hiding their stuttering. This concept can also be extended to other disability groups. People with disabilities are taught to normalize and behave as if they are able-bodied.


Next he says, “I think just introducing stuttering to a space can be a radical act. Just by stuttering and being open about it you can begin to challenge some of those [ableist] narratives.”


Constantino puts forward that people who stutter should stop to consider why they want to be fluent in a given situation. He recommends paying close attention whenever the perceived need to be fluent comes up. He says to ask yourself, “‘Why shouldn’t I stutter in this space?’ – and then maybe use that as evidence that actually, this space could use some stuttering.”


He also echoes the sentiments of Barry Yeoman – who was featured in the blog post, “Self-Advocacy and a New Generation of People Who Stutter” – in saying that this cannot be accomplished alone. Constantino references organizations such as the National Stuttering Association, Friends, and other self-help groups that can serve as a support system.


Other disability groups play a part in driving a counternarrative as well. Constantino notes that not everyone has an opinion about stuttering, so it’s hard to have a conversation about ableism and its impact if stuttering stands on its own. To get these ideas to a wider audience he encourages solidarity, because the issue of implicit bias toward individuals with disabilities is a global one.


I continue to find it fascinating that Constantino is a speech therapist because, if we fully accept stuttering, attempts to treat it could be construed as attempts to normalize verbal diversity. I ask if he can discuss his approach to stuttering therapy.


He replies that as a therapist he asks himself, “How can we raise the consciousness of stutterers so that they recognize when their difficulties are stemming from their speech versus when the difficulties are stemming from their treatment by others?”


Constantino postulates that people who stutter often internalize the message from others that fluency is equated to being more capable, intelligent, and attractive. As therapists, we need to assist our clients in challenging those deeply held views.


There is also the necessary work that must be done to decrease escape and avoidance behaviors in order to openly stutter. Constantino sees this work as supportive to a stutter-positive perspective. In his words, “I don’t see [the options] as either ‘work on your speech’ or ‘embrace your stuttering.’ I feel like those two things are very much complementary.”


His advice to speech therapists and how they can best serve clients who stutter? “Rather than trying to make the person who stutters a fluent speaker, how can we improve quality of life? How can we make their experience of being who they already are a better experience?”


As we wrap up our call, Constantino makes a final note – that acceptance is not a swift process of changing your attitude. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that can take years.


It also takes strong leadership.


To learn more about Dr. Christopher Constantino and his leading work in the field of stuttering, visit his profile page on Florida State University's website.

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