Updated: Dec 29, 2021
“I don’t think that SLPs and other helping professionals are being trained to become advocates. I think if you make money off of this population, you should be advocating too.”
Nina G did not give me the story I anticipated. I planned to write a piece about her approach to comedy and the intersection between comedy and stuttering. After all, she is the self-proclaimed only-American-female-stuttering-stand-up comedian. We did touch on this during our conversation last week, but it was not the overarching theme of discussion. Instead, Nina hit me with something that has led me to question my entire profession as well as my own role in it. She hit me with the simple fact that despite some valiant attempts, Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) and other helping professionals aren’t doing a good enough job at advocating for the clients they serve.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Nina sees herself as a disability rights advocate first and a comedian second. She has made appearances as a disability advocate talking about stuttering on numerous high-profile talk shows and podcasts including Howard Stern’s 100 news, The Stuttering John Podcast, BBC’s Ouch, NPR’s 51%, TEDx, Canada Tonight, and StutterTalk—just to name a few. As an author, her publications are far-reaching and include a powerful essay on the “overcoming stuttering” narrative as well as the book, Stutterer Interrupted. Her latest book Bay Area Stand-Up Comedy, co-authored by OJ Patterson, is set for release on February 14, 2022. She is also a member of the comedy troupe The Comedians with Disabilities Act and author of the children’s book Once Upon An Accommodation. In sum, if you want to learn more about Nina’s story, her take on stuttering, and her journey to becoming an activist, there are many other places to look beyond this blog. Nina G has an abundant media presence as an advocate, author, and public speaker.
It is important to note that Nina doesn’t just identify as a person who stutters (PWS). She also has dyslexia and was recognized as having both articulation difficulties and Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) as a young child. Additionally, she represents the fourth generation of her family to identify as disabled—multiple relatives are hard-of-hearing (HOH). Her family had a history of battling for accommodations and was therefore well-equipped to teach Nina how to self-advocate. “Disability was normal in our family,” she told me. “My parents were always very good about acceptance and what to do with it.”
During our Zoom call last week, Nina described growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and fighting for school accommodations at her traditional Catholic school as early as the third grade: “Teachers were not expecting much out of me, and they were also denying me accommodations.” In response to these educational barriers, her mom contacted UC Berkeley, an institution known at the time for being a forerunner in the disability rights movement. Nina’s mother asked about the university’s accommodations for dyslexia and was given feedback that included extra time on tests and access to books on tape.
However, when these ideas were relayed back to Nina’s school, the teachers were less than sympathetic. The blame for any academic failure fell directly on Nina. According to her teachers, she wasn’t a good student and shouldn’t expect any handouts. She was ultimately denied any accommodations, but Nina’s mom kept detailed records of this event. “I tell this story because sometimes advocacy doesn’t work,” Nina said, “but…you’re still sending a message that this person is important enough to advocate for.” This was the experience she described as planting the seed of activism. Sometimes you have to stand up and fight for yourself and others like you, even if it doesn’t result in immediate change.
Nina also shared the story of when she first came to realize that she stuttered, and that her stuttering and dyslexia were intrinsically entwined. Prior to this first memory, she had no awareness of stuttering. It happened in the second grade. A teacher had asked the students to each select a prayer from the Bible to read aloud. After everyone else had taken a turn, the teacher asked if there was anyone left who hadn’t yet had a turn to read. Nina raised her hand but went ignored. The teacher’s eyes desperately searched the class for another volunteer.
Considering the challenges she faced reading aloud due to both dyslexia and stuttering, it would have been a difficult assignment. Reflecting back, it’s possible that the teacher passed over her to protect her from humiliation but she didn’t see it that way at the time. Instead, the experience of being silenced made her feel small and inadequate. It also contradicted the teachings of acceptance that are foundational to Christianity. “I’m pretty sure Jesus would have been fine with a stuttering prayer.”
Nina continued to struggle in school. She wasn’t sure if the academic problems she faced were due to dyslexia or stuttering, because the two were “so tied in with each other that it’s hard to tease them apart.” She explained that they were tied together “in terms of identity—I felt like shit about myself when I was a kid, and was that because of the stutter or was that because of the dyslexia?”
While some people who stutter turn to the arts, sometimes becoming writers because of the fluency that is inherent via nonverbal expression, Nina had no such luck with the written medium due to dyslexia. As a result of having multiple disabilities, she felt “weird” and isolated. Her childhood was also shaped in the 80s during a pre-internet era, making it very difficult to find role models or others that were facing the same struggles. Yet she did find one source to ease the pain: comedy.
Young Nina was riveted by comedic celebrities. Stars like Steve Martin, Gilda Radnor, and Bobcat Goldthwait enthralled her. She loved the way that comedians like Goldthwait used character voices to tell a story and fantasized that behind-the-scenes they struggled with stuttering; after all, she knew that adopting a different voice helped to facilitate fluency. She had heard other celebrities like Lester Hayes and Mel Tillis stutter on TV, but never one of her comedic idols. Without a stuttering role model, she assumed that comedy was not a career path that was open to her.
However, at the age of 15 she discovered Stuttering John (John Melendez) on The Howard Stern Show. He was the first comedian she had ever seen stutter openly. Around the same time she also discovered a mentor in John Ahlbach, a Bay Area teacher who was also the executive director of the National Stuttering Project (now the National Stuttering Association or NSA). Ahlbach was also the eventual co-founder of the FRIENDS stuttering organization that supports young people who stutter and their families. He introduced Nina to the wider stuttering community, where she began to feel a sense of belonging and self-acceptance as a stutterer.
She attended her first stuttering conference in San Francisco in 1992, but it didn’t exactly go as planned. Attending as a teen volunteer, Nina was one of the only females and she was also significantly younger than the other conference attendees. The experience of being a young female amongst a sea of older men frightened her off from attending regular conferences, but she also learned an invaluable lesson from being there. For the first time, she was placed in the position of being a listener on the receiving end of stuttered speech. She learned to wait and maintain eye contact when speaking with someone who stutters, and thus also learned how she wanted people to respond to her own stuttering.
Nina decided to pursue a career in the footsteps of Ahlbach and become a teacher. She attended UC Berkeley, worked as a teacher for a time, and eventually went back to school completing a doctorate degree in Psychology. While she had found academic success, the dream of a becoming a comedian remained dormant. She just didn’t feel a comedy career was possible. “I was waiting for fluency to kick in so that I could do some stand-up, and it wasn’t happening.”
Then, at the age of 35 Nina attended her second stuttering conference. It was there that she realized how much she was letting her feelings about stuttering hold her back from living the life she desired. Nina took a personal inventory and thought about what she could change if she became more accepting of her speech. Stand-up comedy was at the top of the list.
A year later she saw a video of stand-up comic Jody Fuller, a military performer who “pokes fun” at stuttering and stutters openly throughout his routine. Nina began to understand that she could work stuttering into her bit, albeit in her own way. She also came to realize that there is a power in stuttering on stage. “Comedy is the only place where I feel completely free with my stutter.”
When Nina is on stage she doesn’t just hold the mic; she holds the floor. If someone is going to make fun of her stuttering, beware. It only serves as fodder, and she is known for working it into her act. Her approach to working stuttering into her comedy has been both personal and educational. “I never wanted to make fun of stuttering, but I wanted to make fun of the experiences that happen as a result of stuttering.”
Nina started to build her comedy career at open-mic nights in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was one of few females, and one of very few comedians with a disability, to take the stage. She felt like an imposter, but pushed through on passion and drive. Her message was shaped by her “biggest comedy inspiration,” Dick Gregory, an African American comedian who rose to prominence in the 60s as an audacious performer and civil rights activist. During this period of her earliest performances, Nina drew strength from Gregory’s trailblazing ability to blend comedy and activism. Gregory was able to bring positive change on a global scale through his work as a performing artist and Nina aspired to do the same. She saw an opportunity to elevate disabled voices through comedy. As she put it, comedy could do more than just raise disability awareness, it could also “win the hearts and minds of people,” a precursor to long-lasting societal change.
This was admittedly an idealistic vision that faced an uphill battle. Nina recognized that the two critical elements for any activist seeking to shift widespread attitudes are exposure and diversity. Yet the gatekeepers of who gets the influential exposure (aka the media), are not innately supportive of elevating diverse or disabled voices. Nina asserted that the entertainment industry perpetuates a belief that audiences can only handle one disability or perceived difference at a time, “In order to get on TV right now as a disabled comic you have to be a white man. If there’s any kind of intersectionality people’s heads are going to explode, so it’s okay if a man says he stutters but a woman doing it…‘My god I can’t handle that!’ Or if the person is Black and stutters…‘I can’t handle that!’”
She continued pointing out that comics who get it wrong or perpetuate stereotypes are often the ones who get the most press. Disparaging remarks almost always get the most attention, and even bad press is good press when trying to make a name in comedy. “Everybody promotes the comic who makes an ableist joke by saying this person is awful—and in doing so, they are virtue signaling and elevating that ableist voice. Why? Why not share your favorite disabled comedian instead?”
Our discussion followed this line of thought and I asked Nina who holds responsibility for elevating the voices of people who stutter? If the media isn’t on board, then who exactly should take the lead?
Her answer: “I think the responsibility is on the stuttering organizations. I don’t think that SLPs and other helping professionals are being trained to become advocates. I think if you make money off of this population, you should be advocating too and trying to share that message.”
It’s not that SLPs and stuttering organizations haven’t tried. Organizations like FRIENDS, the NSA, The Stuttering Foundation, and The Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY)—many of which have affiliated SLPs and PWS volunteering countless hours behind-the-scenes—have been tireless in their advocacy efforts to promote stuttering awareness. What does she think they could do better or are perhaps getting wrong?
Nina responded to this question by focusing on who is getting it right. She applauded the British Stammering Association(STAMMA) for their modernized approach, and said more organizations should take a page from their recent billboard campaign that highlighted slogans like, “I’m not nervous, it’s how I talk,” “I’m not hesitating, I stammer,” “Don’t hang up on me,” and “Please don’t finish my sentences.” These billboards, viewable all over major metropolitan areas in the UK, also depicted diverse individuals. Their simple messaging was effective, educational, and memorable.
Recently, STAMMA also introduced a petition aimed at major media companies to include more stuttering voices in film and television. The petition highlights the damage done to the stuttering community due to a lack of media presence. Also, when stuttering is depicted in a typically negative or comical light it perpetuates negative stereotypes about stuttering.
US stuttering organizations have been heavy on conferences, community gatherings, media appearances, and commercials that have made an impact on people who stutter and their families. However, it has been difficult in the United States to reach the general population. It could be that our country is too big to approach with one type of campaign; the overcoming stuttering narrative has confused the verbal diversity and acceptance narratives; media that highlights “fixing” or “curing” stuttering posits that stuttering is a problem (such as when the SpeechEasy device was featured on Oprah in 2002); or that outdated posters and newsletters are not resonating with today’s stuttering youth (case in point, this famous people who stutter poster).
SLPs hold individual responsibility as well. Nina asserted that SLPs should be supporting clients by advocating across community lines, utilizing Brofenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory that examines an individual’s relationships to greater society. Our job as SLPs should not end with individual therapy, a school IEP meeting, or a paid role. The work that is done to destigmatize and raise awareness should be part and parcel of the job too!
SLPs spend most of their working time in their professional environment, but should consider extending the message of stuttering awareness into more informal spaces—the school, place of worship, parent groups and play spaces that will inform wider networks and communities. “If everyone took their little piece and did that, we’d be good. Getting your piece of the real estate in advocacy is so important.”
Most recently, and as a result of the pandemic, Nina has felt a shift away from the imposter syndrome that previously marked her experiences as a comedian and activist to one of gratitude. She told me that she feels “lucky to be here,” lucky to do what she does as a stand-up comic, author, and speaker.
Stunning to think about, considering how lucky we are to have this powerful, uplifting voice leading the charge. What will you do next to support Nina and the stuttering community, and to get yourself a piece of that advocacy real estate?
While you’re thinking about it, Nina G will have no doubt booked her next event and will be stuttering—proudly, openly, and loudly—in front of a captivated audience.