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Stammering or blindness - which is harder?

Lisette Wesseling | 01.03.2009

Would you prefer to stammer rather than be without vision? Lisette Wesseling, a blind person who stammers, gives a suprising perspective.

Lisette WesselingOur sense of sight, and the ability to express ourselves are probably two things fundamental to the human condition. Yet plenty of us go around getting stuck over our words from time to time, and many others go around using a white cane to be the eyes which don't work. Much fewer of us deal with both at the same time.

As a blind person who also stammers, I'm asked from time to time which is harder. I wonder what you would answer?

The answer I give usually surprises people: stammering is much more difficult to live with than blindness. I understand the fear that blindness engenders in sighted people - a fear of being in the dark - and yet I cannot agree that it is worse than stammering. For me, blindness is as much part of who I am as the fact that I have two legs and 10 fingers. Stammering, on the other hand, is something I have struggled to make a part of myself due to a world which really does not understand stammering at all. Also, I am convinced that blindness combined with stammering has contributed to the interiorising of my stammer. While the iceberg is definitely shifting, I still tend to hide the stammer away. Here is why.

Firstly, stammering can be very variable, whereas my blindness is consistent, reliable and permanent. The only reliable thing about my stammer is that I know it could happen at any time, regardless of situation, stress or anything else. While I continue to work on ways of managing my stammer, it often surprises people as it appearsto pop up out of nowhere after periods of relatively stammer-free speech. Being blind, on the other hand, is something which is always the same and which never changes from day to day. I am not sighted and then suddenly blind for a few seconds. People get used to the idea that I can't see them and adapt accordingly. The nature of stammering is still so misunderstood, that people respond to moments of physical stuckness with shock and surprise.

My childhood was filled with positive blind role models

Secondly, growing up with blindness which was acknowledged and appropriately dealt with by parents and the education system is infinitely different than growing up with a stammer which was never talked about. My childhood was filled with positive blind role models - children and adults, who showed me how to live in the world as a blind person. There was a sense of pride in using braille, winning at blind sports, and eventually using a cane which enables me to travel around the world. Conversely, I knew no one of my own age who stammered until I was 21. During my teenage years, I knew a blind man who stammered, though I was too ashamed of my own stammer to talk to him about it. Classmates used to imitate his stammer behind his back, driving me even further into my interiorised stammering shell. If open stammering produces that sort of teasing, I thought, I don't want people to hear me stammer.

Only in recent years have I met some wonderful stammering adults whom I choose to call stammering mentors. These are people I knew while living in the UK, and new friends I recently met at the National Stuttering Association conference I attended in New York. These people literally provide me with that same support and mentorship as did those wonderful blindness role models of my youth.

Finally, in our world so obsessed with perfectionism, the child in me did not want to show people two imperfections. I did not want to hide the blindness, but I did want to hide the stammering. This meant that many people did not know I stammered. They thought I spoke quickly, sometimes used odd words, paused in strange places, or always agreed with the status quo (I did this rather than risk exposing my stammer by offering my own thoughts which I feared would be unwelcome).

I also observe that sighted people often minimise the stammer by only concentrating on the blindness. I often used to hear "You're just a bit nervous because being blind must be so frightening". Being blind from birth, as I was, not being able to see is as normal to me as being able to see is to you. What's far more disturbing is hearing your own words literally get stuck in your throat, or knowing you won't be able to say your own name without audibly stammering.

To this day, I know no other blind person who stammers. The blind man at school is no longer with us, so I cannot talk to him about it now. It can be a pretty lonely world at times. I have met many wonderful stammering friends, who are a great source of support and comradeship. My answer still stands though: blindness is much easier to live with than stammering.

From the Winter 2008 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 6 and 7.


Stammering and blindness revisited

'Inkheart' film

Lisette's article above was cited in the Observer (21 December 2008) in a letter by BSA member Richard Oerton. Philip French's review (link to guardian.co.uk) of 'Inkheart' the previous week had drawn attention to a character in it who stammers and is made fun of by his comrades, with the film-makers doing nothing to mitigate the mockery. The review commented that it "will be hurtful to stammering children or children with stammering parents". Richard wrote (link his letter at guardian.co.uk) that as a stammerer of some 70 years' standing, he still finds it strange that a condition which, if severe, can blight a whole life is so often made fun of, and he referred to the comparison with blindness in Speaking Out.

Another view

Peter Pascoe, another BSA member, writes: "As I have lived with a stammer for most of my life and am now registered as 'blind', I can empathise with Lisette to a degree. I can distinguish shapes and colours and manage my condition without too great an amount of trouble. My stammer, on the other hand troubles me very much less than it did when I was younger. On this basis, I find my stammer easier than the visual impairment."
From the Spring 2009 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 7.