A blog by James Hayden

The look. Everyone has their own definition of it, but we all know what it means. It's the hard-to-describe look a parent or teacher gave you that said, "You need to get your act together in the next 0.005 seconds or else."

If you're a person who stutters (PWS), "the look" has a second definition. I don't need to describe it to you. You know exactly what I'm talking about. For those who don't stutter, it's hard to accurately describe "the look." It's an expression that blends embarrassment, being uncomfortable, sympathy, wanting to help but not knowing what to do, not knowing what's going on and more, all within a split second of the first stuttering moment. I've gotten "the look" so many times I'm immune to its effects, but I still notice it. I've gotten “the look” from: professors, acquaintances, the cashier at the store, my Uber driver, waiters, classmates, the pizza delivery guy, family friends, coworkers, the stranger in the elevator, and anyone else you can think of. Recently I got "the look" from a group I never expected: speech language pathologists (SLPs).

Recently, I was at a state’s speech and hearing association convention. I got “the look” from quite a few SLPs over the two-day convention. And if I’m being honest, in those moments I lost my immunity and was hurt. For the first time in years, I became more aware of and more self-conscious of, my stutter.  Receiving “the look” is expected from others but not from SLPs. They are trained professionals in this field after all. I didn’t know how to best respond in the moment. So, I put on a happy face and kept it moving. It wasn’t until after the convention that I allowed myself to process and reflect on those looks.

As said in a previous article, I believe grace is a key ingredient in advocacy. The convention made me put those words into action in a way I never expected. Don’t get me wrong, I was hurt by getting “the look” from them. However, I had to remind myself to not sit in the suck of it and to give them grace. They are humans before they are SLPs, after all. I think their response also has to do with the field of speech language pathology. How stuttering is viewed and understood has evolved immensely over the past couple decades. Additionally, most university speech language pathology programs don't cover or barely cover stuttering. Lastly, most SLPs don't work with PWS often. I’ve heard of some SLPs who might only have one or two stuttering clients their entire career. As a result of all these factors, they don’t know what they don’t know.

Because they don’t know what they don’t know, they might have forgotten what stuttering looks like or sounds like if they had seen or heard it before. As a result, the human response of "I've never heard this. I don't know what to do. I'm uncomfortable,” unconsciously shows on their faces. Better known as “the look.”

So, what can be done to fix this?  What can SLPs do so PWS don’t get the “the look” from those trained to help us? First, feel the human response for a moment. It’s natural and deserves to be felt. Then put on your SLP hat and realize the person you’re talking to has a communication disorder. My friend Nicole said it best, “Instead of it being sirens and alerts it should be like a light bulb going off like ‘oh this person stutters’ instead of ‘there’s something wrong.’” During the person’s stuttering moments, give a look that says, “it’s ok” and not “this is wrong.” More importantly, as my friend Steff said, “You don’t have to stare them in their face. That’s awkward for anyone. Just listen.” You never know the impact one look will have on someone. So, please don’t give us “the look.”

Disclaimer: Many of my friends are SLPs. I'm not talking about them. They're great friends, allies, and people. I'm talking about SLPs who aren't familiar with stuttering. The ones where I'm more knowledgeable about the topic than they are.

Note: This article was partially inspired from an excerpt from John Hendrickson’s book Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter.

Posted April 5, 2023