Entertainment

Influencers who stutter prove you don’t need to be fluent to have a voice

Before 2020, Ryleigh Spets used TikTok mainly to create funny lip sync videos or check out the latest internet trends. She didn’t talk much about her stutter, and she certainly didn’t intend to advocate for people who stutter. But when she noticed people belittling presidential nominee Joe Biden for the way he talked, she couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

“They said he had degenerative brain disease,” said Ryleigh, who prefers to use her first name. “I thought you were joking?”

Critics speculated that Biden’s occasionally faltering speech was an indication of memory loss or dementia, and ridiculed his seeming inability to answer “basic” questions. However, stutterers recognized his pauses as “blocks,” a common form of stuttering. Ryleigh, who first learned Biden stuttered when he was seven in a speech therapy clinic, was horrified by the suggestion that his speech impediment should disqualify him from the presidency. To her, it was offensive to the entire stuttering community.

“If you say bad things about someone else’s disability, you’re saying bad things about everyone else’s,” she said.

Ryleigh posted a video to her 6,000 fans at the time, venting her frustration and breaking down in tears. “I’ve said that having a disability is really hard, especially when millions of people are bashing that disability and saying untrue things about it,” she said. She had hoped that some people would listen and open their minds, but never expected the video to give her influencer status. “I literally gained 150,000 followers overnight,” she said.

Ryleigh is among a new wave of social media influencers who stutter. Charming, stylish, and gorgeous – as influencers usually are – these young women are doing something that’s pretty much unheard of until now: they’re posting authentic, unedited videos of themselves stuttering. Many of these creators also use their platforms to answer viewers’ questions about stuttering. For example, Caitlyn Cohen has posted hundreds of videos answering questions like, “Do you like it when people help you finish your sentence when you stutter?” and “Do you like it when people compliment you on that your stutter will get better?” – both strong nos for her.

“I think stuttering is one of the most mocked of disabilities in the media and in real life because a lot of people don’t know much about it,” Ryleigh said.

@rydawgswizzle THIS IS POPULATION! Don’t interrupt us and don’t think you know what’s best for us. Just… say nothing and listen… #stutter #stutterer ♬ O-Ton – Ry

She noted that non-stutterers often fail to recognize that their stutter is a disability, instead assuming it is a symptom of another problem. She recalls times when she was asked if she had social anxiety despite being a “very social person,” or was initially denied service because the bartender thought her stutter was an indication that she was ” either drunk or underage”. Her videos help destigmatize and normalize stuttering so non-stutterers can understand what it is and respond respectfully when they encounter it.

Mainstream acceptance often begins with representation, which has long been an issue for people who stutter. Few books and films feature characters who stutter, and those who do are either bullied (like Bill from It) or to “recover” from their stutter (as King George VI in The king’s speech). It’s even harder to portray stutterers in real life: As author and stutterer Sophia Stewart points out, “I only knew characters who stuttered, not people.”

Even celebrities who stutter, like Emily Blunt or James Earl Jones, are generally people who have “outgrown” their stutter and whose real-time speech impediments we never really witness. This lack of representation is even worse for stuttering women and girls, in part because women are four times less likely to stutter than men.

YouTuber Matice Ahnjamine is another influencer trying to fix this representation problem. Ahnjamine didn’t meet anyone who stuttered until she was seventeen: “Growing up, I never knew anyone who spoke like me,” she said. In 2017, Ahnjamine started a YouTube channel where she answers questions and shares personal stories about her stuttering.

“My main goal when starting the channel was to encourage other stutterers,” she said. “My channel should be like a friend [them].”

Like Ryleigh, Ahnjamine wanted to educate people about the reality of stuttering and to combat “disability drift,” when people assume that a person with one disability also has other, unrelated disabilities. For example, stutterers tend to be perceived as less competent in several areas, including intelligence, expressiveness, and social skills.

“I realized that people had misconceptions about stuttering,” Ahnjamine said. “Some people thought that meant you weren’t smart, some people told me to slow down…I realized a lot of people who don’t stutter just don’t get it.”

Ahnjamine uses her YouTube channel to connect with other stutterers and often posts videos about navigating dating, work, and everyday life with a stutter. She’s also trying out treatments that viewers recommend in the comments, including CBD oil and speech therapy. Opportunities for stutterers to discuss treatment options are typically scarce, making Ahnjamine’s channel an especially valuable resource.

“For me, it was about exploring these things for the followers and letting them know about my experience and giving a rating because they wanted to try it for themselves,” she said.

Some of these influencers post videos of themselves doing something that scares them to empower other stutterers to do the same. For example, influencer @mimidarlingbeauty makes TikToks of herself by doing things like public speaking, leaving voicemails, and imagining her stutter before she speaks. Similarly, Ahnjamine made a video in which she challenged herself to make phone calls, something she had previously relied on her mother to do.

“That really stressed me out … but now I do all the phone calls myself,” she said. “I try to encourage others [who stutter] to own it and not let her fear hold her back.”

These influencers can play a huge role in helping girls and young women see their stuttering as something to be celebrated, rather than ashamed. One fan commented on one of Cohen’s videos: “We love your stutter! It makes you unique… wouldn’t change it for the world.” Another fan commented on a @mimidarlingbeauty video: “I used to wish for a ‘cure’ but now I’ve accepted it thanks to you.”

Still, people who stutter can face a lot of discrimination and difficulties. To help, Ahnjamine runs the Stutter Bae Scholarship, which provides financial aid to high school and college students who stutter. Ahnjamine was inspired by her own postgraduate experiences: “It took me three years after graduating from college to get a job, and during that time student loans started to pile up,” she explained. “I had no way of paying them, I had no job, no money. It caused a lot of stress for me and to alleviate that stress for other stuttering students I created the scholarship.”

Thankfully, stuttering is slowly but surely being destigmatized, in part due to social media representation. Ryleigh said she recently noticed that social media users were encouraging others to stop using the word “stutter” negatively. “People on TikTok are like, ‘Hey, don’t say the phrase ‘Did I stutter?’ Use a different expression,” she said. “It’s heartwarming.”

Ahnjamine has also observed a positive change in the way people perceive and interact with stutterers. She has spent the last few months looking for a job and has been surprised by her success. “I had five interviews in one week … and last week I got several offers,” she said. “It’s really exciting because 10 years ago I couldn’t even get a job in three years.” She accepted one of the offers and is taking on a leadership role in her new job that she previously thought was impossible.

“Now I really feel like there’s nothing I can’t do,” she said.


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Jaclyn Diaz

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