The 19th Annual FRIENDS Conference was held this year in Columbus, Ohio. The theme of the conference was “Breaking Down Walls About Stuttering.”

This year’s keynote speaker was Christopher Constantino, MS CF-SLP, a native of Poughkeepsie, New York who now lives in Memphis. Chris is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Memphis, a speech language pathologist at Shelby County Schools, Stutter Talk co-host, and chapter leader of the Memphis NSA Chapter.

Chris first recounted his personal history of growing up as a young person who stuttered. By the time he was in high school he felt angry and defensive. He pretended his stutter did not exist and avoided speaking when possible. Chris’ speech therapist suggested that he attend a one-day FRIENDS Conference at Kean University. He did so, and found the day to be a “profoundly moving experience,” which was “a wake-up call.”

That day Constantino met many other stutterers, of all ages. He encountered adults who stuttered who said they were okay with their speech. He thought they were lying. The contrast with his previous experience was stark, and his feelings about stuttering began to evolve.

These years later, Chris believes that, “stuttering is not so easy, but is the best thing that ever happened to me.” He thought that “stuttering was within me,” but now believes that it is “social, in the world around us.”

There is a scene in Michael Turner’s personal documentary film, The Way We Talk in which Turner is walking on a fishing pier, and encounters a gate, which is a barrier from him continuing to walk down the pier. Constantino believes that this example is analogous to stuttering, which need not prevent a person from being able to carry on with her/his life.

Chris spoke about two types of walls which are created by society: ignorance and discrimination. Ignorance is about the social expectations of fluent speech, and “the listener’s snap judgment that something is wrong” when hearing stuttered speech. In his life Constantino has encountered ignorant perceptions about stuttering in various ways; including being laughed at. A police officer thought he had been drinking too much, and forced Chris to take a breathalyzer test.

Discrimination, he says, is about body and voice, and society expectations about “fluency.” He feels that the stigma of stuttering is reduced by people sharing their personal stories. “It is simple but not easy to stutter more.” Society is malleable. As people who stutter do so openly, our bumpy speech will be less noticeable/ stand out less.

Chris believes that most conversation is a ritualized exchange, in which the speaker says only pat phrases, which serve to keep others at a distance. The act of stuttering forces the listener to pay attention. He acknowledges that to open up; to trust and be vulnerable is to take a risk, and give up control of the situation. To stutter can be like a trust fall, in which a person falls back with the trusting expectation that she/he will be caught before reaching the ground.

Constantino then talked of “the beauty of silence, and of words not yet spoken”. To stutter is to “create a deep and personal connection,” and in turn gives the listener space to tell her/his personal stories, which helps to break down walls.

And to not want to stutter is the biggest wall.

Chris concluded his speech by telling the story, When Pots and Pans Could Talk:, by Kevin Kling:

Back in the days when pots and pans could talk, which indeed they still do, there lived a man. And in order to have water, every day he had to walk down the hill and fill two pots and walk them home. One day, it was discovered one of the pots had a crack, and as time went on, the crack widened. Finally, the pot turned to the man and said, ‘You know, every day you take me to the river, and by the time you get home, half of the water’s leaked out. Please fix me.’ And the man said, ‘You don’t understand. As you spill, you water the wild flowers by the side of the path.’ And sure enough, on the side of the path where the cracked pot was carried, beautiful flowers grew, while other side was barren. ‘I think I’ll keep you,’ said the man.

Found on July 31, 2016 at: https://faizoro.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/back-in-the-days-when-pots-and-pans-could-talk/

After Chris’ speech was a Q&A. One audience member noted that Chris had presented his speech while barefoot, which he felt showed that he has broken down some societal walls himself! A woman with cerebral palsy who also stutters thanked Chris for his speech and talked about her life experiences. The topic of therapy for stuttering came up; he encouraged a person in therapy to combine her/his new techniques with embracing stuttering, and “not get in the way of our speech!”

A personal note: this writer is friends with Christopher Constantino, and has presented workshops with him about stuttering and disability. Chris has helped me able to view my stutter in new ways. I appreciated that his speech was heartfelt and resonated with the audience.

Jeff Shames

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