While COVID-19 cases have been on the decline and in-person activities are slowly reopening, it looks like one feature of the pandemic is here to stay: Zoom. The increased popularity of video calls has been an adjustment for everyone, but it presents unique considerations for people who stutter. From talking to many people who stutter, I’ve heard quite the range of opinions on video calls, and I’ve even found myself alternating how I feel about Zoom.
As a student at the University of Connecticut, all of my classes for the last two semesters have been totally virtual and I’ve had to navigate this strange situation. On one hand, I sometimes feel like classes meeting on
Zoom reduces the speaking stress I feel in certain situations, such as giving presentations. While presenting, my screen is taken over by whatever slides I’m sharing, and I can’t see the audience I’m speaking to. Because I’m sitting alone in my room, presenting to some abstract, unseen audience, I almost feel like I’m talking to myself and my stress levels surrounding speaking go way down from what I would normally expect. I’ve also noticed that I am much more fluent giving Zoom presentations than when I would be giving in-person presentations, which makes me think my gut feeling of “being alone” is taking over, since I’m normally fluent when I talk to myself.
On the other hand, talking on Zoom can be hard! You lose so much nonverbal information as well as the “back and forth” dynamic you get from talking in-person. When you’re in a discussion, it can be difficult to get a word in when everyone else is talking and you try to talk, but you stutter at the beginning of your thought so someone talks over you. While this can be difficult in-person, if everyone is in the same room they can at least see that you’re trying to say something and wait until you have the chance to finish. However, on Zoom no one is constantly scanning the tiny tiles of each person on the call and, as a result, your attempt to speak isn’t noticed. One thing I’ve found to be helpful is to use the “Raise Hand” feature, or to physically raise your hand so whoever’s leading the discussion can call on you to speak during the next lull.
Another unique challenge that comes with virtual meetings is advertising your stutter. If it was a normal first day of class, I would find a way to work the fact I stutter into the icebreaker activity. Maybe I would wear a National Stuttering Association shirt, mention that I went to an NSA conference over the summer, or that I volunteer with the NSA. All are good ways to mention that I stutter instead of explicitly stating I stutter, which might go against the flow of the conversation or vibe of the activity (is saying “I’m a person who stutters” really a fun fact about myself?). But with Zoom classes, at least for me, it seems like class introductions aren’t done, so there isn’t really a chance to advertise how I usually would. Then what? Do I awkwardly unmute and randomly advertise that I stutter? Send a message in the chat? Wait until it’s my turn to talk, then start by saying I stutter? This is a situation I’m still not sure I know how to navigate, and I’ve found myself advertising less since the switch to virtual learning and meetings began. Maybe the best way to go about it would be to just give a simple statement saying I’m a person who stutters and it may take a little longer for me to say what I want at the start of a class or meeting with people I don’t know.
Something else I’ve noticed is that it’s so much easier to avoid speaking situations over Zoom than in-person, which isn’t a good thing if you’re trying to actively participate or embrace more difficult speaking situations! When you have an 8 A.M class, it’s all too easy to log onto Zoom, mute your mic, turn off your camera, and be perfectly content not participating. This semester, though, I’ve made it a personal goal to participate in my classes when possible to do so. In one of my smaller courses, I’ve decided that I want to participate at least once per class. Doing this pushes my comfort zone and helps me get over the intimidation of talking on a Zoom call. If you want some external pressure to meet your goal, you could even tell your teacher about this goal and ask them to hold you to it!
Having classes and meetings on Zoom or other video call platforms presents a series of unique challenges for people who stutter, not just in the school setting, but in all situations where speaking is required! I’ve learned a little bit about how to navigate virtual meetings as a person who stutters, and I hope that you found my tips useful!
Author Matt is a student at the University of Connecticut double majoring in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences and Psychology with a minor in Cognitive Science. At UConn, Matt plays the saxophone and mellophone in the Marching and Pep Band and works in a research lab. Matt started attending NSA Conferences in 2015, and hasn’t stopped since! Before stepping into the role of Teen Program Co-Coordinator in 2019, Matt served on the TAC for 2 years. In the future, he hopes to pursue a MS-PhD specializing in stuttering.
This piece is part of an ongoing series, written by our NSA Teens.