Public Perceptions of Stuttering 2001

This section of the web page comes from a class project conducted by the students in the CSD 4200 class, spring 2001. Each student interviewed six adults about stuttering, using a common interview protocol. They compiled their results and put the information together in a research paper format with an Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and References. (All sections were edited by Cindy Spillers, the instructor).

 


Introduction

Authors: Melissa Boehnke, Samantha Ginkel, Sarah Deleeuw, and Rozalynn Clancy

Most research that has been conducted on the public’s perception of stuttering has focused on the view that normal speakers have of people who stutter. A study by Kalinowski, Stuart, and Armson (1996) looked at differences in how the people view an adult male who stutters compared with an adult male who does not stutter. The researchers administered a 25-item questionnaire to 180 participants. All participants evaluated both a male stutterer and a male non- stutterer, but half of the participants evaluated the person in a speaking situation and the other half, in a non-speaking situation. The subjects evaluated the adult male who stutters negatively, regardless of whether he was speaking or not. The male stutterer was judged to be “afraid, tense, anxious, nervous, guarded, avoiding, passive, and more sensitive" when compared to people who do not stutter. The researchers concluded that an apparent negative stereotype exists for people who stutter.

In a study by Norman Lass, et al. (1992) the researchers attempted to find out how elementary and secondary school teachers perceived a stutterer based on age and gender. A total of 103 teachers from the eastern part of the United States were given four cases of hypothetical stutterers: an 8-year-old female, an 8-year-old male, an adult female, and an adult male. The teachers were asked to list as many adjectives as they could to describe these four individuals. A total of 287 traits were reported for all four hypothetical stutterers. For the child stutterers, more traits were reported for males than females while the number was equal for adult male and female stutterers. The top three traits reported for all four hypothetical stutterers were: shy, nervous, and insecure.

Most studies addressing public perceptions of stuttering focus on the public’s perception of the person who stutterers. We were unable to find research investigating what the public knows or believes about the disorder of stuttering. The negative perceptions that people have of stutterers raise important questions. Where do these negative perceptions come from? Could they stem from a lack of knowledge about stuttering? Does personal knowledge of a person who stutterer have any impact on an individual's perceptions of people who stutter or on the disorder of stuttering?

We attempted to find out what the general public knows and believes about stuttering as a disorder by interviewing our friends and family members. We asked males and females of different ages the following questions: What is stuttering? Do you think you stutter? Why or why not? What do you think causes stuttering? Through these questions we hoped to gain insights into the common beliefs that people have about stuttering.

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Methods

Authors: Roxanne Fleck, Melissa Koschak, Betsy Peters, Arleen Buss

Subjects

The subjects consisted of 42 males and 42 females between the ages of 20 and 50. Most subjects resided in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Each student from the UMD Fluency Disorders class of 2001 interviewed one male and one female from each of three age groups: 20-29 years, 30-39 years, and 40-49 years. The following table indicates the number of subjects in each age group and the total number of subjects.

 

Table 1. Number of subjects by gender and age group.

 

 20-29 years

 30-39 years

 40-49 years

 Total

 Males

 14

 14

 14

 42

 Females

 14

 14

 14

 42

 Total

 28

  28

  28

 84

Measurement Tool

The UMD Fluency Disorders class of 2001 developed a brief interview protocol for all students to use when gathering data from subjects. We wanted to keep the protocol brief so that the interviews took minimal time from the participants and so that analysis of the data would be manageable, given the class' time line. During a brainstorming session a variety of possible questions were generated. Students then voted on their choices, with the top four vote-getters being included in the final interview protocol.

The interview protocol began with demographic information, including first name, age, gender, occupation, years of formal education, and personal knowledge of anybody who stutters. It then proceeded to three open ended questions:

  1. What is your definition of stuttering?
  2. Do you think you stutter? Why or why not?
  3. What do you think causes stuttering?

Procedures

Each class member interviewed six people, some strangers, some acquaintances, and some family members. Interviews were conducted in person or over the telephone and took between five to ten minutes to complete. The student researchers wrote each subject's responses down on the interview protocol forms. None of the interviews were audio or video taped.

Data Analysis

Each student compiled his/her interview results into a one page report and distributed those to the rest of the class. Class members divided into four groups with each group compiling and analyzing the aggregate data for one part of the interview protocol (demographics, questions 1-3). The groups used the initial compilations provided by individual students for the basis of their aggregate analysis, with the option of looking at the original raw data if necessary.

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Results

Authors: Jessie Tripp, Erika Stattine, Christy Callery, Melissa Tvete

Demographic Information

Eighty four subjects participated in this study, 42 males and 42 females. Table 1 provides a breakdown of subjects by gender and age range. The subjects' formal education levels ranged from 12-20 years of schooling, with the majority having completed approximately four years of post-secondary education. Table 2 provided information on education of the subjects and Table 3 provides information on the occupations of the subjects.

 

Table 2. Years of formal education of participants.

 Years of Education

Males (n=42)

Females (n=42)

 12

 1

5

 13

3

3

 14

5

4

15

6

3

16

16

13

17

6

7

18

3

6

20

2

1

 

Table 3. Occupations of subjects.

 Occupational Category

Number of Subjects

 Human service profession

20

Student/graduate student

19

Business/management/sales

19
Technical profession

8

Engineer

6

Medical profession

5

Bartender/server

4

Homemaker

3

Of the 84 subjects interviewed 57% (n=48) reported knowing somebody who stutters. Two of these people identified themselves as people who stutter. The remaining 43% (n=36) reported no personal knowledge of a person who stutters.

"What is your definition of stuttering?"

The most common definitions of stuttering included difficulty producing words as well as repetitions of sounds, syllables, words and phrases. Most definitions were vague and did not included many details of what stuttering may include. For example, no one included secondary behaviors in their definition of stuttering. The definitions were categorized by their similarities. Those that had unique features to them were included in a miscellaneous category. This information is presented in Table 4.

 

Table 4. Categorical elements in definitions of stuttering

 Categories

 Example definitions

Number of Subjects

 Sound repetitions
sound repetitions and getting stuck; repetition of sounds and phrases

 34

 Syllable repetitions
repetitions of syllables and sound articulation; syllable repetition and trouble producing syllables

5

Word repetitions
repetition of words and unusual rate; repetition of words and parts of words and phrases

11

Trouble getting words out
trouble getting words out and getting stuck on a sound; trouble getting words out and stammering

18

Speech rate component
think faster than they speak; speak faster than they think

 4

Eight people defined stuttering as unclear speech using descriptors such as "stumbling, fumbling, tripping, and staggering." Four people defined stuttering as speech that is "not fluent. " Four people described stuttering as when people get "stuck on a word" and two referred to getting stuck on syllables. Seven people stated that stuttering included difficulty forming or pronouncing words. Eight of the 84 people mentioned that the stutterer knows what they want to say but are unable to say it. Four individuals had unique definitions which include struggle speaking, trouble articulating sounds, uncontrollable hesitancy, and difficulty getting words out because of too many of the same consonants occurring in the word.

"Do you think you stutter?"

The majority of the respondents (57 or 68%) replied "no" to the question "Do you think you stutter?" Ten of the 84 participants (12%) responded yes, while the remaining 17 (20%) responded with "sometimes, I stutter." Those who responded "no" gave explanations such as "I don't repeat sounds when I speak" and "no one ever told me that I stutter." Explanations related to "sometimes, I stutter" included "when I am excited, I stutter," and "when I repeat parts of a word or the whole word several times, even though I know how to say the word." One individual who responded "yes, I stutter," indicated that he would experience 2-3 month periods where he would notice an increase in disfluencies, which he classified as stuttering. This would be followed by 2-3 month periods where there would be less of these disfluencies, or a decrease in stuttering. Table 5 provides the breakdown of responses to the question "do you stutter?" by gender.

 

Table 5. Responses to "Do you think you stutter" by gender.

 

 No

Sometimes

Yes

 Males (n=42)

 27 (64%)

10 (24%)

5 (12%)

 Females (n=42)

 30 (71%)

7 (17%)

5 (12%)

 Total (n=84)

 57 (68%)

17 (20%)

10 (12%)

Four trends were noted in the subjects responses to the question "do you think you stutter? First, of the 17 participants who reported that they sometimes stutter, all (100%) reported knowing somebody who stutters. Second, of the 10 participants who reported that they stutter, all (100%) reported knowing somebody else who stutters. Third, of the 57 participants who reported that they did not stutter, 29 (51%) reported not knowing anybody who stutters. And fourth, of the 57 respondents who did not stutter, 28 (59%) reported knowing somebody who stuttered.

What do you think causes stuttering?

Table 6 presents the categories into which the subjects' explanations of the cause of stuttering fell, and the number of responses that fell within each category. Examples of responses that fit within the categories are also included.

 

Table 6. Categories represented in the explanations of what causes stuttering.

Categories

Example Responses

Number of Responses (n=84)

Something to do with the brain a neurological disorder; a chemical imbalance

22 (26%)
Nervousness nervousness

15 (18%)
Genetics they're born with it; a genetic behavior

9 (11%)
Anxiety/fear/insecurity getting overly excited; negative self image; shy and insecure

11 (13%)
Psychological condition a medical or psychological problem; blocks in the brain by psychological events; mental deficiency 

8 (10%)
Uncertain; no explanation offered  I don't know what causes stuttering

7 (8%)
Stress nervousness caused by stress

6 (7%)
Trauma a negative experience in their childhood; trauma or some sort of accident; being teased when younger

6 (7%)
Problem with speech and language development impairment in language development as a child

4 (5%)
Fast speaking rate trying to talk too fast

3 (4%)
Habitual or learned behavior  it's like a comfort zone; people get comfortable stuttering and don't try to work it out

2 (2%)
Muscular impairment a muscular problem or defect; a spasm in the larynx

2 (2%)
Mental problem a lapse in your train of thought

1
Chemical use alcohol use

1
Limited opportunity to talk  parents or older siblings answering questions for you

1

From these categories two common themes emerged. The first theme included elements of an organic cause, such as a neurological disorder or a genetic disorder (31 or 40% of total responses). The second theme involved some kind of emotional distress, including nervousness, fear, insecurity, or stress (also with 31 or 40% of total responses). The remaining 20% of responses did not revolve around any particular themes.

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Discussion

Authors: Rudy Chmelik, Chris Jordan, Andrea Nyen, Jen Rien

Our project addressed what the public knows and believes about stuttering. Eighty-four adults, 42 males and 42 females, were interviewed about how they would define stuttering, what they think causes stuttering, and whether they might consider themselves a stutterer.

Defining stuttering

Sixty percent of the 84 people surveyed mentioned repetition of a sound, syllable, or word in their definition of stuttering.  Respondents made no references to secondary behaviors, physiological features, covert features, or the involuntariness of the core behaviors in their definitions. These definitions suggest that the public, as represented by this group of subjects, has a limited and vague notion of what stuttering is and what behaviors or phenomena may be associated with it.

Causes of stuttering

Respondents suggested a variety of factors that may cause stuttering. Most ideas about cause fit into one of two themes: an organic cause or a psychological cause. The 40% of responses that suggested an organic cause included comments about genetics and brain functioning, two areas in which recent research has advanced. The 40% of responses that suggested a psychological cause seem to reflect long standing opinions that stuttering is a psychological disorder. The remaining 20% of responses that suggested habit or behavioral learning also reflect long standing and erroneous opinions about stuttering. Less than half of the total respondents, then, had some kind of informed opinion about the cause of stuttering.

Do you think you stutter?

An unexpectedly high number of participants (37%) in our survey reported that they stutter, at least some of the time. Prevalence figures in the United States indicate that roughly 1% of Americans stutter at any given time.  We believe that most of the participants who responded "yes" or "sometimes" to this question were referring to normal disfluent speech behaviors, such as repetitions and revisions, and did not believe that they had a speech disorder. Normally fluent speakers often refer to moments of disfluency in their speech as stuttering even though they do not have any of the characteristics associated with the disorder of stuttering. This bring up the need to distinguish between stuttering as a behavior and stuttering as a disorder. If subjects were thinking about the behavior of stuttering and not the disorder of stuttering when answering the question "do you think you stutter?" they may also have had the behavior of stuttering, and not the disorder, in mind when answering the two previous questions about the definition and cause of stuttering.

Conclusion

The results of our survey suggest that the public has an incomplete and inaccurate perception of what stuttering is and what causes it. Their understanding of stuttering may be confined to the behavior of stuttering and not encompass the broader scope of the disorder. We attributed this limited perception of stuttering to what we believe are two major factors: sparse media coverage of the disorder along with poor depictions of stutterers throughout the entertainment industry, and inadequate public education about people with stuttering and other disabilities by community sources.

The sparse media coverage of stuttering may be partially due to the low incidence of occurrence of stuttering compared to other disorders.   The small number of people affected by stuttering coupled with the lack of sexiness or glamorousness of the disorder contribute to its inability to grab a headline. The media seem to have little incentive to investigate stuttering and present updated and accurate information about the disorder. The lack of updated and accurate information about stuttering in the common media outlets, such as news and health magazines, or science and health television programs, helps to allow myths and misinformation about stuttering to persist in our culture. Three respected magazines have recently published accurate and reputable information about stuttering. U.S. News and World Report had an article in April 2001 discussing the characteristics and potential causes of stuttering. In March 2001 First for Women published an article outlining diagnosis and early intervention of stuttering. And in January 2002 Better Homes and Gardens presented a brief article on how best to respond to a child who stutters. More such articles in a greater variety of media outlets would help educate the public about stuttering.

The entertainment industry also contributes to the perpetuation of myths and misinformation about stuttering with inaccurate and stereotyped depictions of stuttering and people who stutter. At a young age, people are introduced to an animated character named "Porky Pig." Warner Brothers created a character who demonstrates certain core behaviors (part word repetitions), but does not portray the accessory behaviors or covert and physiological features of stuttering. Furthermore, Porky's stuttering is often an object of humor in the cartoons. In the movie, A Fish Called Wanda, one character is presented as a stutterer.  While the behaviors of stuttering presented by this character were fairly accurate, the depictions of attitudes directed toward him were less than favorable.  This character was often the object of abusive behavior. For example, in one scene the character was subjected to humiliating events, such as having food shoved up his nose, while stuttering.  The depiction of this character helps to perpetuate the attitude that people who stutter are incompetent, ineffective, and worthy of ridicule.

Misperceptions of stuttering are also reinforced through music. One of the current Top 40 music hits is a song titled, “Stutter” by Joe.  This song centers around a man who suspects his girlfriend of cheating on him.  When he confronts his girlfriend about it, she begins to stutter, indicating to him that she is lying.  This song perpetuates the myth that stuttering has a psycho-emotional base to it, in this case, lying. Without any accurate media sources to dispute the misinformation perpetuated in popular culture, the younger generation may use these images as part of their knowledge base about stuttering.

Various community sources and agencies tend to carry the responsibility for disseminating accurate information about disorders, disabilities, and diseases to the public. The agencies also help to teach understanding and tolerance of people with differences. People with disabilities such as stuttering often experience an inner turmoil that the general public seldom realizes. In our study, we noticed a disassociation between observable behaviors and the psychological responses that can accompany the disorder of stuttering. The general public needs to see the connections between the outward behaviors and the inward psychological experience and realize that, together, they make up the disorder of stuttering.

Greater advancements in technology will further scientific understanding of stuttering. These new discoveries need to reach the general public so that the community at large understands and accepts stuttering and people who stutter. Media outlets and community sources can have an important role in disseminating new information and changing public opinion about stuttering.

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References

Kalinowski, Joseph, Adnrew Stuart, and Joy Armson (1996). Perceptions of stutterers and notstutterers during speaking and nonspeaking situations. AJSLP, 5(2), pp. 61-72.

Lass, Norman J., Dennis M Ruscello, John F. Schmitt, Mary D. Pannbacker, Mary Banyas Orlando, Kathy A. Dean, Julie C. Ruziska, and Karen Harkins Bradshaw (1992). Teachers' perceptions of stutterers. LSHSS, 23(1), pp. 78-81.

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posted January, 2002