Speaking in a classroom setting can be really hard. It can also be an enriching and joyful experience. If you stutter, you might find yourself on the "really hard" side of that continuum. Here at the American Institute for Stuttering, it's common for us to walk alongside clients as they face the unique challenge of public speaking while being a person who stutters. These challenges can include traditional speeches in public speaking courses as well as required participation in class discussions, group presentations, oral exams, and more. A big piece of the puzzle in these conversations often centers on self-advocacy and accommodations. Whether you have found success with public speaking in school, have struggled with it, or have avoided it altogether, there are several important things to consider.
What do teachers and professors know about stuttering?
Very often the answer to this question is... not much. Teachers are required by law to provide educational experiences in an equitable manner, but it is not their responsibility to offer accommodations (more on that below) if they don't know about a student's handicap or disability. Teachers and professors generally rely on students (and/or their parents) to advocate for their own unique learning needs.
For that reason, it is incredibly helpful for people who stutter to find a way to communicate with their teachers about stuttering. There are a lot of resources out there on the general topic of self-disclosure and stuttering (see this article, or this one), but you might be curious about doing this with a teacher. People approach this differently, so there isn't a set rule for how to do it, but rather a range of approaches that are more or less direct, or that are done independently versus relying on the help of a parent or loved one.
Below are some options for talking about stuttering with teachers that require public speaking -
Office Hours - Professors typically hold "office hours" on a set schedule or by appointment. This can be a perfect time to have a one-on-one conversation about the fact that you stutter, your concerns about the requirements of their course assignments, and to discuss possible accommodations.
Parent/Teacher Conferences - For high school students, parent teacher conferences offer a great opportunity for discussing stuttering, and any public speaking expectations that may need to be modified or handled more sensitively.
Email - Send your teacher an email to explain that you are a person who stutters, anything you might want them to know about your stuttering, concerns you have, and more. High school students can send an email independently, or ask their parent to do it. Again, whatever you're ready to take on. Consider the sample email message -
Ms. Johnson, I’m John and I’m in your Spanish class this semester. I think it's important for you to know that I stutter. This means that I sometimes get stuck on words and it takes me a little longer to speak. I know that public speaking is an important part of learning Spanish, and I will try my best to participate in your class. Here are a couple of things you can do to help: 1) Please make eye contact with me when I’m speaking, 2) Please be patient with me, and let me say what I want to say even if it takes a little longer. I don’t mind talking about my stuttering, so please feel free to ask me questions about it privately. Sincerely, John
While we're at it, here's another sample email -
Mr. Patel, I'll be in your Public Speaking class this semester, and I'm writing to let you know that I stutter. As you can imagine, public speaking has been a challenge for me in the past, but I am planning on trying my best in your course. That being said, I noticed in the syllabus that your grading rubric for speeches includes a fluency category and a timing category. Would you be open to a discussion to make sure that these grading criteria are modified to account for my stuttering? Thank you, Susan
A main idea to keep in mind as you consider stuttering self-advocacy at school - you deserve the same opportunities as other students to grow as a public speaker, without fear of being penalized for the fluency of your speech.
Accommodations in School Settings - The Basics
Here in the United States, there are several non-discrimination laws that protect people from discrimination based solely on a disability or handicap. The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is a law that sets requirements for the education of students with disabilities in primary and secondary education (elementary, middle, and high school). The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) provides protections for people with disabilities in many areas, including college. Whether or not you consider stuttering to be a personal handicap, know that stuttering does legally qualify as a disability*.
Due to these laws, your teachers are required to offer educational activities in an equitable format, not necessarily an equal one. A good example for equity vs. equality in education are the drinking fountains we see in school buildings. Schools provide these drinking fountains at different heights and in different shapes in order to provide drinking water to all students, regardless of height or physical ability. Likewise, educators are required to provide reasonable accommodations for educational tasks.
*Readers should note the author of this article is not a lawyer. Please consult a lawyer for further advice and the most accurate interpretation of US non-discrimination laws. In addition, you can get answers to many of your ADA questions by calling the ADA Info Line.
Asking a Teacher or Professor for Accommodations
Most colleges and universities have very specific policies in place for how to handle accommodation requests. They typically require students to go the school's center for disability services, where the student can provide documentation of the disability, and meet with a counselor to discuss possible accommodations. These disability services centers will then provide a letter that you can give to your professors. Not everyone who stutters chooses to go this route, but it is important to know if you are planning to ask a professor for accommodations. Some professors may simply handle your request unofficially, while others may require you to get a letter from disability services before discussing your request.
High school students should check with their teachers and administrators to learn the best way to request accommodations. Some teachers will simply offer accommodations, while others may first require the student and their parents to provide documentation of the disability first. Further, accommodations can be written directly into an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). If a student/family does not want or does not qualify for an IEP, a 504 plan can be created in order to document accommodations. IEPs and 504 plans are both legal documents that have to be followed by the school.
Types of Accommodations for People Who Stutter
There is no rule on the specific accommodations that should be offered for people who stutter, but there are many reasonable options to consider.
Rubrics - some educators use a rubric for evaluating public speeches, and it's quite common for them to include a section on fluency, timing, use of fillers, etc. In these cases, it is reasonable for people who stutter to ask the professor to strike that item from the rubric, or come up with another way to score the public speech in a way that does not put you at a disadvantage solely because of the presence of stuttering (or secondary behaviors related to stuttering).
Timing - it's common for public speaking assignments to have a time expectation. If a professor is expecting a speech to last 2 to 3 minutes, for example, you may benefit from asking the professor to loosen the requirement, especially if you feel your stuttering may cause your speech to run over.
Audience - you're not alone if you're feeling overwhelmed or simply not ready do your public speech in front of your whole class. In these cases, it can be reasonable to request a private audience with the professor for your speech, or an audience of your peers, or even a recorded option that you hand in.
An important rule of thumb when having discussions with teachers about possible accommodations - come to the table ready to discuss your concerns and some possible accommodation ideas. Try not to expect the professor to know what to do without your input. Some teachers will have experience with these matters, and others won't.
Looking to learn more about public speaking accommodations? Check out these great resources -
The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY, Atlanta, GA, and Los Angeles, CA, and services are also available online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.
Atlanta Clinic Director, Board-Certified Specialist in Fluency Disorders
Carl is the Clinic Director for our Atlanta office. He joined AIS in New York in 2006 and worked closely with our founder, Catherine Montgomery for five years. In 2016, he moved to Atlanta to open our first satellite office.