Last week I spent four days reconnecting with an extended family of 700 people at the annual conference of the National Stuttering Association.
This is the world’s largest organization for people who stutter with about 150 local support groups, educational programs and a national conference. Stuttering was a problem for me when I was younger but is practically a non-issue in my life today, thanks in part to conferences like these.
We who stutter make up about one percent of the population. Stuttering is mostly neurological in origin and often genetic. (Short answer: Our brains process speech less efficiently.) It’s not psychological but comes with a lot of emotional baggage – particularly because stuttering is widely misunderstood and may be the only disability it’s still acceptable to ridicule.
Speech therapy helps, but overcoming the effects of stuttering requires attitude change and a lot of emotional healing: letting go of lifelong fear and shame, bringing your stuttering out in the open and accepting that it’s okay to stutter.
Many people who stutter have never talked with another stutterer about stuttering, and some have never met anyone else who stuttered. So walking into a gathering of hundreds of people who stutter – a place where stuttering is normal – is a new experience. Newcomers are accepted the moment they walk in the door and there’s an instant bond of kinship.
The kids are fun to watch. A child who is the only kid in the class who stutters suddenly meets dozens of new friends. I’ve seen a generation of these youngsters grow into confident young adults.
The conference has educational workshops, keynote speakers and a gala banquet. But the main attraction is a family reunion on a massive scale, where people reconnect with old friends and make new ones. People come back year after year, and some arrive a couple of days early just to socialize.
People who usually have difficulty talking are immersed in nonstop conversation. Groups form spontaneously for lunch or dinner, and first-time attendees (identified by a ribbon on their nametags) get special attention. Nobody is alone for long. For people who are still struggling with stuttering, the conference is a boost in self-confidence that carries over into their daily lives.
This year one of our long-time members was ill and could not make it to the conference. So another friend posted a video on Facebook with hundreds of people cheering for him. Another guy walked up to the stage during the conference and proposed to his girlfriend: one of several couples I know who met at these conferences.
This was my 22nd National Stuttering Association conference and I’ve made many friends over the years. It’s a varied group: Engineers, retail workers, college professors, accountants, a retired postal worker, a veterinarian. I’ve learned a lot from all of them.
I keep in touch with many of these people on Facebook and we frequently argue about politics, as practically everybody does these days. At the conference, the subject rarely came up because we had so many other things to talk about.