More Than My Stutter: Bay Area residents work to end the stigma of stuttering

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ByJason Beal KGO logo
Friday, September 29, 2023
More Than My Stutter: Bay Area residents work to end stigma
In the Bay Area, there's a small but mighty group looking to spread awareness and acceptance of people who stutter.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's estimated that more than 79 million people worldwide live with a stutter. In the Bay Area, there's a small but mighty group looking to spread awareness and acceptance of people who stutter.

"Being vulnerable has never been an option for people who stutter," says Maya Chupkov, creator of the "Proud Stutter" podcast. "As soon as we open our mouths, you're sharing the deepest, shameful thing about you, without choosing it."

"Growing up with a stutter, I felt very alone in my experience. it was a very lonely childhood in that way," says Chupkov.

Chupkov says she was a very outgoing kid and that she wanted to participate in class and speak up, but her stutter made her hesitant.

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"There was always that thought in my head of like, 'you want to say that something, but you stutter.' There was always that 'but,'" she says. "The way I kind of battled with my stutter is I would just pretend it didn't exist."

Chupkov says it wasn't until she went to college at UC Santa Barbara that she began her journey of accepting herself and her stutter.

Gina Chin-Davis, a filmmaker from El Cerrito, describes very similar experiences.

"I was working at a school," says Chin-Davis, "and I called someone's grandparent and I stuttered on the phone. I was trying really hard to hide it, and he was like making fun of me and how I was talking. I hung up the phone, and I was like 'I think I need support for this part of my life.'"

Chin-Davis says she grew up, much like Chupkov, trying to hide her stutter.

"The idea of hiding it so that I wouldn't be judged, so that I wouldn't be teased or bullied, was the goal," she says. "And I just wanted to kind of slip into the crowd and be like everybody else."

Chin-Davis says as she got older, she decided she needed to change her relationship with her stutter.

"I started stuttering at the age of about 4," she says. "As a young person, I felt that stuttering was going to get in the way of what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be, what I wanted to be."

She wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 14, when she started making shorts films and music videos in high school.

"The type of filmmaking that I do currently is narrative," she says. "Currently I'm making a documentary for my friend Nina G., the stand-up comedian. I'm doing a concert film-slash-documentary of her show, 'Stutterer Interrupted.'"

In a small room in Pleasanton, stand-up comedian Nina G. entertains a crowd with a unique routine that even highlights her stutter, at times.

"What I always say is, you should never pity me for having dyslexia or for stuttering or for having a disability." She continues, "But you can pity me for going to Catholic school with those things in the 1980's, that wasn't so fun."

Nina G. says that sometimes it takes the crowd a while to get used to her speech pattern.

"I introduce it, I talk about it," she says. "What I tell people is: I stutter, and you're just going to have to wait for all my brilliant ideas."

Since she was 11 years old, Nina says she always wanted to be a stand-up comedian. In high school, however, she gave up on her dream because she wasn't fluent.

"I started to stutter when I was 8 years old," she says, "and that was about the same time that I was first identified as having a learning disability. So kind of the both of those identities are kind of intertwined. And the combination of the dyslexia and the stutter had a really big impact on me. Feeling like I was part of the community of school, I didn't always feel that way."

Some of the ways that Nina hid her stutter was using funny voices and acting weird, in general.

She says, "For me, it was better to be weird than it was to stutter."

Nina says she struggled during middle school, but during high school, she had an individualized education plan that addressed her stutter and dyslexia. What eventually led her back to stand-up comedy was attending a conference for people living with a stutter.

"(It) really reflected back my own biases about my stutter," she says, "my own internalized stigma, my own internalized ableism. Once I kind of got on that path, I was like, OK, what's the other thing I've always wanted to do, and it was stand-up comedy, like, that was the thing I've always loved. So I tried it out. And I've been doing it now for 13 years."

The current belief is that stuttering is cause by a combination of genetics, language development, environment, as well as brain structure and function.

"I know what I want to say," explains Chupkov, "but it's almost like my voice isn't caught up with my brain. So there's kind of this disconnect."

"In reality, there's a difference in the brain, and when we talk, we stutter," says Nina, "but if we sing or if we use a funny voice, then we don't."

Chin-Davis adds, "You never know when your stuttering might come out. Mine is very...kind of has no rhyme or reason. Like sometimes I'll be completely fluent, and people will be like, 'wait, you really stutter?' And I'm like, 'yes, I do.' And then I'll stutter a lot, sometimes. It really varies."

"Stuttering is just this deep -- and I hear this from everyone -- like it's this deep thing that we just hide," says Chupkov, "like it's so shameful because we can't really help it. I just never quite got to the root of my insecurities until I realized wow, like I put so much energy around hiding my stutter my whole life and a lot of people feel that way."

On May 4, 2023, Maya and a group of other people who stutter gathered at the California State Capitol in Sacramento for a press conference following the passing of ACR 59, a measure that will designate May 8-13 as Stuttering Awareness Week. The measure was introduced by Speaker of the Assembly Robert Rivas.

"Like many others across California, and across the United States," Rivas says during the press conference, "I have a stutter, and I have had a stutter my entire life." He continues, "it was not easy, I can tell you is not easy. I still have my stutter. But certainly, at the end of the day, that is who I am and I am a better person, now, because of my stutter."

The press conference featured speakers from all walks of life, sharing their stories about living with a stutter and their hopes for a future of more acceptance and understanding of people who stutter. One of those speakers was 11-year-old Sam Wood.

"In many ways, stuttering makes it super hard to talk and read in front of others," Wood said. "But stuttering makes me unique and not just an ordinary person."

Wood is a typical kid in every way. He plays soccer, hangs out with his family, and enjoys video games.

"When I talk," he says, "I need a little bit more time to get my words out."

Wood also enjoys school.

"School's fun because there's nice people," he says. "People who, like, don't be mean about what you have. Some people don't realize when they meet someone, what it is. It's not just, like, something that you learn, or do on purpose."

Wood even made an info sheet with his speech teacher; one side contains myths and facts about people who stutter, the other side has some helpful tips for interacting with someone who stutters.

"When I stutter, give me time to try to say the word," he says. "Wait for my signal before you help. When I give my signal, tell me the word that I'm stuck on. If I get stuck again, wait for my signal and give me one to two words."

During the press conference, Wood expressed the importance of educating others about those who stutter.

"You can make someone's day a whole lot better by letting them know that they aren't an outcast just because they stutter and talk differently from everyone else," he said.

Back in San Francisco, Chupkov is setting up for an interview she's conducting for her podcast, "Proud Stutter."

"I was miserable at my job during COVID," she says. "My fiancée at the time, now husband, he's like, 'you should do a podcast about stuttering, like how cool would that be?' As soon as I heard that idea, I'm like, that's actually a really good idea, but how am I going to go from hiding this to, like, suddenly screaming from the rooftops, 'I have a stutter.'"

Chupkov says the more she opened up about her stutter, the freer she felt.

"I finally felt understood for the first time in, like, my whole life," she says, "I kind of became addicted to that feeling and so I realized I'm on to something. And so the podcast, yes, it's for the stuttering community, but it was also for myself."

She says one of her biggest goals is to see more stuttering on television and film that properly represents the stuttering experience.

"And with social media," she says, "I'm seeing a lot more TikTok content around stuttering."

One young woman on TikTok with over 280,000 followers documents her real-life experiences as a person living with a stutter. A simple task such as ordering a beverage, takes on a whole new meaning in her world.

"Ordering your own coffee is huge for someone who stammers," says Georgia Scott, who goes by "ge0rgiatalks" on TikTok. "It's ordering exactly what you want. It's not avoiding or ordering something that's a little bit easier to say."

Like many others, Scott says she started stuttering at an early age. She was often mistaken for being shy and quiet in school. In reality, though, she says that couldn't have been further from the truth.

"It's because I'm struggling so much accepting myself as a person who stammers," she explains.

On every video that Scott posts, the comments from followers range from supportive words to questions about her life as a person who stutters.

"I just thought I needed people to understand what it actually feels like having a stammer. Things that your average person might not even think of. So I try to give that message of, 'you're so deserving to order exactly what you want.'"

Through her experience documenting her life through social media, Scott has learned that the world can be accepting of who she is.

"I'm still a bit shocked by it. Having all of these sweet reactions or interactions has just almost like, healed my inner child who grew up with such negative thoughts and feelings."

Though the process of spreading awareness through social media and podcasts is easier today than ever, for people like Michael Sugarman, creating a community of acceptance in the 1970's took time and effort.

In the garage of his Oakland home, Sugarman is sifting through letters that his organization received from people wanting to know more about stuttering acceptance.

"They heard about the organization and wanted to contract us," Sugarman explains while laughing. "Today I guess you just text."

Sugarman was a student at UC Santa Barbara in 1976, where a movement of social justice was in full swing.

"I felt stuttering and disability was kind of like the same thing."

Things started to happen when he moved to Sacramento as a UC student-lobbyist.

"I was talking to a couple of the assembly people and talking about stuttering, starting an organization," he says, "we filed for incorporation papers in January of 1977."

Sugarman says at the time, the organization's message was a bit radical.

"Saying that you were a person who stuttered or you're a person with a disability or a person who stuttered," he explained, "it was quite, quite shocking for some people."

The organization held workshops for parents of children who stutter, trained peers on how to facilitate groups, they even had an article published in the LA Times.

"What I talked about; two things: It's OK to stutter, that you're OK," says Sugarman. "We're looking at our personal development empowerment and saying that you're a person."

Sugarman reflects on where the stuttering acceptance movement started, where it is today, and where it's headed, and he's excited.

"It's so cool," he says. "It is so cool."

From Maya Chupkov: "What I'm really trying to do is to build a movement where the stuttering community feels safe enough to come out of the shadows."

From Nina G.: "I've met people who are like, 'yeah, I got up on stage and did poetry, or I've got up on stage and I did comedy, because I saw you' and I've just talked to tons of people who stutte, who have never seen a person stutter so openly."

From Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas: "Stuttering is not a sign of inadequacy, you are not less of a person because you speak differently."

From Gina Chin-Davis: "I would say to younger Gina that it's okay to stutter, because that was not something that I believed at all as a kid."

From Georgia Scott: "If only she (younger Georgia) knew the progress and achievements that she was always so capable of, because I felt so unworthy. Having a stammer is actually my greatest gift, ever.

Finally, from young Sam Wood: "If I could talk to a kid who stutters I would say 'don't give up, there's more of us out there.'"

Watch the ABC7 Originals documentary, "More Than My Stutter," streaming now in the video player above.

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