Should disabilities be cured or accepted?

Illustration: Getty Images
Illustration: Getty Images

The first email arrived in the morning; the sun was just rising, barely visible through the heavy blinds covering my window. The email was delivered via the automated messaging system on my website; the sender was a complete stranger. Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, this email would be the first of many just like it.

The stranger had sent a short message: Here’s a link to a stuttering specialist in Atlanta, it read. I scrunched my eyes together, puzzled. I don’t live in Atlanta, I thought. But more important, I’m not looking for the help of a stuttering specialist. Why would a stranger assume that I am?

Stuttering is a genetic and neurological speech disability that I’ve carried my whole life. For years, I had difficulty accepting my stutter, but by the time I was in my mid-20s, I began a journey of self-acceptance. I started writing about my stutter, and advocating for myself and others who stutter. I hoped that my everyday activism and writing might have a positive impact on the world. This past year alone, I wrote and published a dozen articles and essays about stuttering.

But I wasn’t prepared for the response I received when one particular piece I wrote about stuttering was published in The Washington Post — placed on the front page of the Sunday health section, no less. After the story’s initial publication, the piece was syndicated and republished in a handful of newspapers all across the United States and Canada. I was delighted, giddy, imagining how many people would read my article and learn more about stuttering, an incredibly complicated speech impediment that only affects 1 percent of the American population.

“You’ve done it,” I whispered to myself, holding the article in print for the first time. “You’ve told the truth. You’re helping people learn.”

But then the emails started coming in — all of them from strangers. Whether they were complimentary of my article or not, most of them insisted on sharing some sort of cure.

My cousin had a stutter, one read, but this SpeechEasy device cured him! By lunchtime, there were a dozen new emails: Have you tried Prozac to cure your stutter? The next day, more: Have you heard thiamine hydrochloride might cure stuttering? Months later, they’re still trickling in: Try out this fluency-shaping program! or, Have you ever tried the Alexander Technique?

Most of these strangers are well-intentioned — a handful impolite — but what they share is the assumption that I’m actively seeking a cure for my stutter. They seem to assume that people with disabilities — which encompasses nearly one-fifth of the American population — are only concerned about finding a cure.

This is simply untrue.

The fact is, for adults, there is no cure for stuttering. Our scientific understanding of stuttering is still incomplete, so for now, researchers seem to agree that early intervention in children is the only way to actually reverse a stutter. Once you reach adulthood, there’s no miracle cure.

In the past, that hasn’t stopped me from trying. For years, I chased every false cure: vitamins claiming fluency, outrageously confident self-cure programs, delayed auditory feedback devices that proved impractical in everyday life. I also tried speech therapy three separate times — in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood — but it was ultimately unsuccessful for me.

I even pursued the most harmful miracle “cure” of them all: drinking alcohol in excess. I discovered this option when I was 15, and perusing a stuttering-focused blog. For years afterward, I struggled with alcohol as a form of disability self-medication. It took more than a decade, but I finally learned that all of these “cures” were ineffective for me. Seeking a magical solution for a lifelong disability did more harm than good.

Eventually, I began to accept my stutter as a permanent part of my speech. I realized that my disability is part of my identity — not a disorder that requires correction. Self-acceptance has been scientifically proven to positively impact the life of a person who stutters. For me, it did just that.

But then came the article, the emails. The messages. The strangers who believed I wanted nothing more than to smother my stutter with pills, devices, and false hope. The more messages I received, the more surprised I became. I had stuttered my entire life. I had been studying and writing about my stutter for years. My graduate thesis had a research component entirely dedicated to stuttering. I have a bookshelf of textbooks, nonfiction research, and self-help books, all about my speech impediment. I wanted to ask these strangers: if there was a miracle cure for stuttering, wouldn’t I know about it already?

Thinking about all this, I grew angry. I complained about the emails to my family. I commiserated with my friends who also stutter. “Can you b-b-b-believe th-th-them?” I demanded.

One night, I was up late working on a project. I turned the TV on, absently watching infomercials. They seemed to be on every channel: commercials for hair-growth serums, weight-loss pills, the perfect shampoo, the perfect shoe rack, the perfect gadget or organizer or device. I started thinking.

Over the past few months, I had been recommended pills and programs from strangers who assumed I needed a cure. I had blamed them for being insensitive, for being unaware, but I should’ve understood all along: It’s our culture that demands perfection. It’s our culture that makes people believe disabilities have to be cured.

I don’t discourage others who are disabled and hope for a cure, I respect their right to pursue whatever it is they want. But this whole experience taught me something about myself: For my own stability and peace of mind, it’s important that I not search for a cure. I hope others too will stop assuming that disability is something that needs to be fixed. And I hope our culture embraces disability for what it’s always been: Just another form of living.

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