National Stuttering Association

Purple and turquoise starburst with the letters NSA in the middle.

By Jenna Birdwell

Finding a job is an inherently stressful experience. From meticulously preparing a resume to selecting the perfect outfit to appear professional, and facing the uncertainty of what questions may be asked in an interview, the process can be daunting. For most job seekers, the anxiety centers around these typical concerns. However, for individuals who stutter, introducing themselves can be the most challenging and determinative part of the process.

Stuttering, a speech disorder that disrupts the fluency of sentences, affects approximately 79 million people worldwide, according to the National Stutter Association (NSA). Larry, a neuroscience student at the University of Southern California, is one of these individuals. Despite his stutter, Larry maintains a positive outlook while searching for employment and offers valuable advice for young adults facing similar challenges.

“I’ve encountered biases when applying for jobs,” Larry explains. “It starts with introducing yourself with your name and usually a handshake. I have trouble with my L’s, so it makes me less confident when I stutter on my first name. For some reason, it seems like employers then don’t want to get to know me.”

Securing a job depends on various factors, but unfortunately, no regulation can fully shield a person with a speech disorder from the biases they may encounter. Research indicates that individuals who stutter face unique challenges in the workplace. Employers often hold negative perceptions of individuals who stutter, viewing them as less competent, confident, and suitable for employment opportunities. These biases can lead to discriminatory practices in hiring, promotion, and workplace interactions.

A study by Melanie Hurst and Eugene Cooper in 1983 found that 85% of employers felt stuttering decreased a person’s employability and opportunities for promotion. Employers, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can hire someone who can perform, “the fundamental job duties that you must be able to perform on your own or with the help of a reasonable accommodation,” but, “an employer cannot refuse to hire you because your disability prevents you from performing duties that are not essential to the job.”

Larry has been in the restaurant industry for several years and has grown close to his current bosses. However, he acknowledges the necessity of being assertive about his stutter.

“The best thing to do, in my opinion, is tell them I have a stutter outright when introducing yourself,” he advises. “They should know that my stutter doesn’t affect my thinking, my work, or anything cognitive. When meeting a potential employer, reactions to my stutter have generally been positive, but sometimes they overcompensate, making my stutter seem like more than just a speech disorder. I set boundaries.” The overcompensation is usually finishing a person’s sentence, and this is something that is angering for someone with a stutter.

While job searching on platforms like Indeed or LinkedIn, the ADA regulations ensure that job postings do not disqualify a person due to a disability. However, stigmas surrounding speech disorders persist. Larry expressed frustration with articles like one that is titled “Best Jobs for Someone Living with a Speech Impediment.” Larry viewed this article as discouraging rather than helpful.

“Articles like this box people in,” he says. “It’s like saying these are the best jobs for you, ignoring the individual interests of the job seeker. Having a stutter has nothing to do with brain capacity; people with stutters can do whatever they want.”

Pamela Mertz, who initiated an employment advocacy program through the NSA, shares Larry’s sentiments. She is passionate about educating employers about stuttering. “Stuttering is covered under the ADA, which came into effect in 1990, and the revised ADA in 2010 expanded its coverage to include any disability that impairs major life activities,” she explains. Despite these legal protections, stigmas, and lack of awareness among employers lead to inconsistent enforcement and unintentional discrimination.

Research by Marshall Rice and Robert Kroll in 1994 highlighted the impact of stuttering in the workplace. According to their study, 67.6% of 410 working individuals felt their capabilities were misjudged by their supervisors due to their stutter. This form of linguistic discrimination remains a significant barrier.

Pamela was inspired to create her initiative based on her experiences with employers. “WeStutter@Work” is a place for educating and helping people with stutters gain confidence in job interviews. The program includes education on speech disorders, interview strategies, and workplace accommodations.

The act of hiding one stutter is called “covert stuttering,” Pamela describes, and it is, “out of fear of being misunderstood.” The program provides a better sense of self confidence when speaking to an employer, or really, anyone they encounter. She proudly states, “The best way forward with job interviews and employment success is through outreach and education, which is what we strive to do with our employment advocacy programs.”

A common question Pamela receives is, “How do I tell an employer that I stutter?” She suggests a straightforward approach: “I stutter, and I just want you to know that I’m okay with that; I hope you are too.” This positive framing helps set a constructive tone for the interview. Pamela’s advocacy and positive attitude inspire others with stutters to approach job searching with confidence, fostering a more inclusive and understanding workplace environment.

For Pamela, stuttering is not an impediment. “I don’t feel like my stuttering impedes me,” she says. Her attitude and work serve as a beacon for others, demonstrating that stuttering need not limit one’s professional aspirations or success.

The impact of stuttering on employment is well-documented. A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Fluency Disorders, which is a scholarly collection of research articles, found that individuals who stutter often experience lower employment rates and lower incomes compared to their fluent peers. This disparity is attributed to the persistent stereotypes and misconceptions about stuttering. Employers may incorrectly assume that a stutter reflects nervousness, lack of competence, or poor communication skills, none of which are true.

Moreover, the lack of awareness about stuttering extends beyond the hiring process. Pamela describes how boundaries are a very important element to respect and this goes for everyone and not just someone with a stutter.

“If it takes a person a minute for them to get their name out, that can be so awkward, but with respect and patience and kindness, I believe that if you’re shaking somebody’s hand upon meeting them for the first time you hold their hand as long as it takes,” exclaimed Pamela.

Once employed, individuals who stutter may face ongoing challenges in the workplace. These can include being overlooked for promotions, receiving fewer opportunities for professional development, and experiencing social isolation.

Public perception and media representation of stuttering also play a crucial role in shaping attitudes. Historically, stuttering has been portrayed in a negative light in films and television, reinforcing harmful stereotypes. However, recent efforts by organizations like the NSA aim to change this narrative.

Educational initiatives targeting both the public and specific professional sectors, such as education and healthcare, are vital. Teachers, for instance, play a critical role in shaping the attitudes of young people. Educating teachers about stuttering can foster a more supportive and inclusive environment for students who stutter, potentially reducing the long-term impact of negative experiences.

While legal frameworks like the ADA provide necessary protections for individuals who stutter, much work remains to be done to address the deep-rooted stigmas and misconceptions surrounding stuttering. Efforts by advocates like Pamela Mertz and Larry, combined with education and programs, such as “WeStutter@Work,” are crucial for creating a more inclusive society.

A final piece of encouragement Pamela gave for someone job searching if they have a speech disorder is, “I know people who stutter and varying degrees and are doctors, lawyers, teachers like in every industry possible.” By increasing awareness and understanding, we can ensure that individuals who stutter have equal opportunities to succeed in their professional and personal lives.