This is the second in a series of interviews with speech-language pathology/communication sciences PhDs and PhD students who stutter. Their experiences and research interests vary, but all of them have been influenced by their personal experiences with stuttering and self-help. Thanks to Emma Alpern for sitting down and catching up with Chris!
Christopher Constantino, PhD, CF-SLP, received a masters degree at the University of Pittsburgh and his PhD from University of Memphis. He is also a StutterTalk cohost and the leader of the Memphis chapter of the NSA. We talked about disability studies, stuttering pride, and how stuttering can challenge and strengthen masculinity.
The National Stuttering Association: To start off, can you tell me a little about your research?
Christopher Constantino: My global interest is in de-pathologizing stuttering as much as possible — or in carving out a space so that should a cure come about, it wouldn’t be so unreasonable for some of us to say, “no, thank you.” For it to make sense to want to stutter, even. Specifically, my pre-dissertation work has been on passing as fluent. I felt like that experience has been heavily pathologized — the person not only stutters, but also is so anxious or has such low self-esteem that they cannot bring themselves to stutter. I wanted to look at why people choose to pass. I came up with the conclusion that passing is a way for people to access the world in a way that they would not have been if they stuttered openly. And in that sense, passing isn’t a pathology at all: it’s a behavior people engage in because society is hostile to stuttering.
For my dissertation, I want to look at the subjective experience of the moment of stuttering and ask what about that experience, if anything, is disabling. To do that, I’m trying to look at two different constructs: One is just the presence of absence of disfluency, and the other is what I’m calling spontaneity. Spontaneity is often seen as exclusively present in fluent speech, but I suspect that it’s also present in stuttered speech — that it’s possible to stutter without reacting to it in a negative way; without any of the baggage that would make stuttering inherently disabling. I also suspect that fluent speech isn’t necessarily spontaneous speech.
NSA: How would you describe disability studies to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
CC: Disability studies is just that — the study of disability. It doesn’t see disability as a taken-for-granted biological construct, but instead looks at how it’s produced and propagated in different social and history contexts. It suggests that you can’t really understand a disability when you isolate it within the individual; that disability is always already social. With that in mind, it attempts to harness theories and perspectives from outside of biology and neuroscience that are more in the domain of sociology and philosophy and even literary studies to try to understand disability in different ways.
NSA: You’ve also talked about stuttering pride — can you speak a little about that?
CC: When you start seeing disability as contextual, you can stop seeing it as just a malfunction, right? So instead of stuttering just being something that isn’t working right or something that needs to be fixed, it may be a valuable trait in its own right. That doesn’t mean that everything about it is good and that we can all just be happy-go-lucky, but we can begin to see how the problem may not simply be that the person stutters. It might be that the person is stuttering in a hostile environment. It may be that the person themselves is hostile to their own stuttering. It may be a myriad of other things that are much more complicated than stuttering is bad and fluency is good. Once you free stuttering to take on meanings other than the negative opposite of fluency, there are a lot of exciting possibilities for not just therapy, but for living with a disability in general. Therapists can begin to help the student explore those possibilities: to maybe take pride in their stuttering, to see how it can be valuable, how it can enrich their life experience, and to think about about what they gain from it — the experiences that they have because they stutter that they wouldn’t have if they didn’t.
NSA: The balance of men to women in support groups and at the NSA conference does not seem to reflect the gender ratio of people who stutter. Do you think women feel more comfortable seeking help for stuttering?
CC: I think so. I think a lot of my issues were wrapped up in emotions of masculinity and just being tough. Frankly, stuttering has taught me a lot about my own masculinity: about how to be vulnerable, and how to be comfortable admitting that I may need help and that I don’t always have to go it alone. That was probably one of my biggest hang-ups.
NSA: That’s maybe a thing you’ve gained from stuttering.
CC: Exactly. In the very way that people who stutter speak — in the actual physical mechanics of speaking with a stutter — vulnerability just comes wrapped up in the package. For a long time, when I was really struggling with it, I never knew if the word was going to be able to be said, or if I’d be stuck in a block for ten seconds. To trust the person I was speaking to — to trust that I could get stuck in a block with that person — took vulnerability. To actually sit in that block for ten seconds took vulnerability. I used to think that stuttering taught me to be strong, but I’ve changed my mind: I think it’s taught me to trust, and to be vulnerable. To be able to say “Look, this is me,” and to give up control. I learned to trust that should I get stuck, it’s going to be okay.