Friday, November 26, 2010

Thank you for the memories........

Hello everyone,

"There's a lot of things I understand. And there's a lot of things I don't want to know."-from "I Think God Can Explain" by Splender.

As I write this latest edition of my blog entry, I have to say that my mind has been experiencing the rollercoaster of emotions that come with the month of November. I find myself alternating between the excitement of the fall, the anticipation of the raw, piercing winds, the energies that surround me and allow me to feel so alive with the snow coming down, and yet the sadness that the holidays can bring. But sometimes we have to feel tragedy impact our lives and the actions of how we deal with these. They can bring us closer together, or envelop us in its self-destruction.

Those who have read my blog know how aggressively I am involved with the National Stuttering Association. It is the greatest love of my life, and I give all praise and glory to them for allowing me to do what I do to help enrich the world of people who stutter. We are a family, and we look out for one another. I take my responsibilities seriously and hold myself accountable to everyone who stutters around the world. However, that family has been decreased by the loss of one of our members.

I first met Chris Norman at the National Stuttering Association in Long Beach, Calif., in 2006, which was my inaugural conference. Chris was pursuing his speech language pathology degree and was a person who stutters. We have many members of our organization who stutter, yet are fiercely determined to be SLPs and help to give back to those who have to face this complex communicative disorder every day. At the time, he lived in Seattle and was a chapter leader for the Pacific Northwest region. We got along very well, and one of the many things that I treasure is that no matter where you live, there's a firm bond between people who stutter, and age doesn't matter at all. The NSA is one organization where age and gender mean absolutely nothing. We stayed in touch periodically through Facebook, and he eventually went on to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for his doctorate. It seemed that he had decided his own path, and was doing very well in all his endeavors.

Chris passed away early this month. I went on Facebook one day early this month and saw messages with "Rest In Peace" written on his page, which had been memorialized in his honor. Confused, I went on and began to read further. And it was like time had stood still. I just felt hypnotized by all these messages and didn't know what to do, or what to say. I went to work like I usually do, but yet that was all I could keep thinking about.

When someone dies at an early age, it's normal to experience a multitude of emotions-shock, for one. Sadness. Anger. I spent many nights crying, feeling helpless and when you hear "Well, things happen for a reason," or "It was God's will," it doesn't make you feel any better and sounds truly condescending.

When I was on America Online a while ago and each member had the option to set up a profile (man, I am that old to remember those days LOL), each user could include a personal quote. Now of course, some people decided to take liberties and make theirs perverted with double meanings. I chose to make mine simple, and I used a quote from the movie "Tomb Raider 2: Cradle of Life," which states "Everything that is lost is meant to be found."

Yet the more I thought about that quote and how it related to Chris's death, I began to wonder if that is true. There will be many people looking for answers, myself included. His parents, his friends, his colleagues. In this case, we may never know what happened. I am a very easy person to read, and I am very outspoken-I wear my heart on my sleeve, and always will. Some are more reserved, maybe he was one of them. Perhaps the answers will be revealed in time, or not. Regardless, I was very lucky to know him. He was one of the very first people who stuttered I met at the NSA conference.

There are times when I wonder what prevented me from taking my own life. The only thing I can think of is that someone up there believes in me very much. I am not religious at all, never have been. The only thing I believe in is the NSA. I have met so many remarkable people who stutter who have achieved tremendous success. As I am 32 now, maybe I am starting to see that I do have a very special gift-I can help others change their life. It won't happen overnight. But I can start to show others there is hope out there. I will be someone they can rely on and if someone hates stuttering, I will be the first one to talk with them and offer help in any way I can.

Thank you for the memories, Chris. The pleasure of meeting you was all mine.

My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.

Friday, November 19, 2010

And now, live from the city of red, white, and blue, it's stuttering advocacy!!!

Hello everyone,

There's an old saying that states "You'll have plenty of time to sleep when you're dead." We have all had times in our life when we feel tired, so beaten down that we are ready to raise the white flag and throw away everything that we have worked so hard for. Friday for many people marks the start of the weekend, when your brain slowly begins to shut down in anticipation of happy hour and a chance to relax. Maybe this is me, but Friday doesn't mark the start of a weekend-it's a chance to start laying the foundation for another quest, one to find employment and represent myself proudly as a person who stutters.

Yesterday, I left Long Island for Baltimore-Washington International Airport, via Southwest Airlines. My final destination? The city of Washington, DC. For those who have read my blog, I have spoken greatly of this jewel of a city that I have come to embrace as my own. For the longest time, Washington has been known as home to The White House, and for having a very high homicide rate. But if you look beyond that, you will find something so much more. I firmly believe that people come down to our capital to work for a goal bigger than themselves. Some come to create new laws, others come to join forces with nonprofits and make their mark on this world. Whenever I walk out of Union Station onto the streets, there's just a pulsating energy that I can't explain in words. It's an indescribable feeling when I was riding the Metro from Pentagon City (just outside Washington in the Commonwealth of Virginia) and as I was en route to L'Enfant Plaza, passing the skyline and seeing the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol.

Washington is a city where something is always going on. And Friday, there was a very unique events. There's a Long Island-based company called Equal Opportunity Publications that hosts a special job fair for people with disabilities. 80 percent of the employers are federal, but there are a few private sector ones represented. I'd be incredibly naive if I said that my stuttering didn't create and challenges in my search for employment. It does, but at the same time, I have also seen different sides of humanity in the process. When I was waiting for the hotel shuttle, I recognized a man from the same fair I was at, who walked with a very visible limp. A person waiting for the bus couldn't stop staring at him. Yet on the other side of the coin, I met seekers who refuse to have their employment dictated by their disability, as I spoke with a very nice young woman seeking a librarian job, while her guide dog patiently sat at her side. I have attended this fair for a few years. And when they announced that candidates could go in, I could hardly wait for the challenge that lie ahead of me.

In this day and age, we often have a "Well, what have you done for me mentality." But whenever I meet with an employer, I always stress the biggest positive I have: and that is my work with the National Stuttering Association. When people ask me what I do, I say I advocate, educate, and inspire. But I say it with such firm conviction and passion so that people believe it. The world is full of people who love to say whatever you want to hear, even if it's not true-just because you will approve of it. Sure, I had some strikeouts. Yet when you think about so much you gained, either way, it was an overwhelming success. And maybe the opportunities will materialize. They always do, one way or another.

Another positive that came out of this fair was the chance to once again meet up with some local members of the NSA. You cannot estimate how much your life can change when you identify with others who experience the same things you do. A group of us had dinner and drinks at Fado's Irish Pub, right in the Chinatown section of DC. Sure, geographically, I was the outsider. But who knows......the Washington area may have a new resident soon.

Natasha Bedingfield once said that the future is still unwritten. I think she's right, but the decisions we make will not just impact ourselves, but others. But one decision that will always guide me is the decision to use my stuttering for good-to help others, to bring them to the world of the NSA, and to continue remembering just why I do what I do. And if you should come visit Washington DC, you might just see me. But that's up to me to write. If it leads to a new chapter in my life, great. If not, I am going forward. It's the only way I know how to be.

My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Yes Mr. Valli, it was quite a night!!!!

Good evening everyone,

I have to start this off by saying that this will go down in history as one of the best nights ever experienced as a person who stutters. There are moments I can count one hand that clearly qualify as unforgettable: The first time I ever did public speaking, the first conference I ever attended, the first motivational seminar I presented, the awards I have been recognized with for my achievements. But there comes a time when something so powerful, so prominent, so full of hope and inspiration, just makes you know that the world is ready to see what great things can come from those who stutter everywhere.

The National Stuttering Association was very lucky to get opening night passes to the premiere of "The King's Speech" on Monday, Nov. 8, at the famed Ziegfeld Theatre, located at West 54th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in New York City. Although I live 45 minutes away from Penn Station via the Long Island Railroad, very rarely will I go into the city-unless I am checking out a karaoke bar or visiting a museum. Most of my life takes place on Long Island, although I do have a goal that I want to explore New York City and all it has to offer. Within an hour, there were about 70 of those passes all gone. I was one of the recipients of those passes, and was very excited to go into the city. Movie premieres are not the glam-fest that you are led to believe they are on the E! Channel. A great deal of work goes into them, every move needing to be carefully synchronized in its rhythm. Thankfully, there was one thing left to do, and that was to show up. I decided to leave my tuxedo at home, though. I wore my "power suit" if you want to call it that (gray pinstripe) and felt like a million dollars.

It's always a thrill for me to catch up with my fellow members of the NSA. The New York City area has a thriving presence, with chapters on Long Island and in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. But of course, we are all running on different schedules and some have families to provide for, so we relish the opportunities to see everyone where we can. I ran into the chairman of the Board of Directors at the premiere, as well as a prominent SLP who runs the "Stuttertalk" podcast dedicated to all things stuttering, from therapy to new pharmaceutical breakthroughs.

"The King's Speech," which was released by The Weinstein Company, focuses on King George VI and the stammering issue he must face. When the film is viewed, it's important to keep in mind the time that the film takes place in. Some of the techniques used really made me raise my eyebrow, but back then speech therapy was not as sophisticated and current like today. One practitioner actually encourages the use of smoking as a relaxing agent (If only I had a dollar for every time I heard "Relax" by a friend or passerby, another one suggested the use of stuffing marbles into one's mouth and trying to speak. The film was introduced by Harvey Weinstein himself, followed by Tom Hooper (the director) and two of the stars, Colin Firth, and Helena Bonham Carter. (Geoffrey Rush could not attend).

What particularly stood out to me as how the film is not just realistic, but goes to such great pains to pay special attention to the emphasis on the relationship between King George VI (Firth) and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush). There are many SLPs who really do not care to explore the relationship more than they are the therapist, and they are getting paid by the patient. It may have taken me several years to find a good speech therapist, but the one I have is not just my therapist. He is a friend, a mentor, and someone who challenges me. He knows I can be anything I want to be, and more. Isn't that what the true measure of a man is-someone who knows that you are a person with a special gift that when fully developed, can lead to big things? You could be an athlete. You could be an attorney. Or, you could even be KING and lead your country through times of turmoil.

I cannot stress how important this movie is. They say there are no guarantees in life other than death and taxes. Well, maybe there's the HBO guarantee of a new movie every Saturday night...yes, I know I am way off base here. I can guarantee that you will hear about the film come Oscar time. At the end, there was a prolonged round of applause, and loud cheers when Firth's and Rush's names were seen at the credits.

As I was riding home on the Long Island Railroad that night, I couldn't help but think about this analogy for my speech. The Hicksville line takes you through Queens County, and you can actually see the Queensboro Bridge as you ride past. Of course, it was all lit up. And I felt like I had crossed the bridge into another world-where stuttering doesn't have to define you. In this age, it seems like there is a "vortex of negativity" where everyone is trying to put each other down. I know there will be many days like that, but just once in a while, you have days (and nights) like this when you realize just maybe, you have a place in this world. It's up to us to determine how big it is.

My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dear Mr. President.....

Hello everyone,

I decided to do something a little bit different for this posting of my blog, and attempt something I have never done before. As a person who stutters and one who considers it a disability, I wanted to send a very special letter to the current President of the United States, who launched a directive to have federal agencies increase hiring of people with disabilities. This is perhaps the greatest piece of writing I will ever do in my life.

Thanks for letting me share.


Re: Disability rights initiative

Dear President Obama:

My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a 32-year old man writing to you from the suburbs of Long Island, New York. It is with great respect and honor that I have the opportunity to contact you as one of the many fellow Americans who turn to you for leadership and guidance. I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of letters you receive are related to health care and the economy. But my letter is something unique because it is not about those concerns at all. In fact, my letter is something I am very passionate about: disability rights.

While I do struggle with characteristics of Asperger's, that is not the biggest challenge I have faced in my life. Ever since age three, I have stuttered. My stuttering has been classified as mild-to moderate. On some days I can maintain a rate of being 80 percent fluent, yet on others, I will struggle mightily. It often ebbs and flows, and I accept the fact that I will always have good days and bad days. Growing up as a young man through high school and college was perhaps some of the most trying times in life, facing consistent teasing and bullying, almost driving me to the point of suicide. When you try to walk up to someone and start a conversation, it can be the most daunting task of all. You don't feel bad because you stutter, you feel bad for the person who has to hear it. All of a sudden, you feel like the petri dish under the microscope, and all the scrutiny focuses directly at you.

There are many misconceptions about stuttering out there, and unfortunately, those are what the world chooses to see. The worst kinds of examples you can see are Michael Palin's character in "A Fish Called Wanda," or Porky Pig doing his infamous "Th-th-th-that's all ffffolks" routine. In the past thirty years, we have risen above that and have seen many people use their stuttering to bring about sweeping changes today. Your colleague, Vice-President Joe Biden, has spoken about his stuttering publically in various interviews. Congressman Frank Wolf of West Virginia was also a person who stutters. James Earl Jones, one of the greatest actors in America, had a severe stutter, as did Marilyn Monroe, whose image as a sex symbol still stands with her many years after her death. Winston Churchill, the former prime minister of England stuttered and is known as one of the greatest orators of his day.

Many presidents (former as well) have stressed throughout their time in office that the greatest act of courage an American citizen can do is to volunteer and support local services that benefit others. For the longest time I was angry and hurting, and gave those feelings a voice by getting involved with an organization that changed my life: the National Stuttering Association. Headquartered in New York City, we are a strictly volunteer-driven, and our goal to reach out and help educate and empower children, teens, and adults who stutter. Our annual conferences are very close to breaking the 700-800 mark, and for four days we come together to celebrate everything that stuttering is, and what it can be. It is truly a very special and poignant time in everyone's life where we can all say that in this crazy world we live in, that we are strong. We are powerful, and most importantly, we can make a difference. We have members who stutter who are doctors, lawyers, and most proudly, speech pathologists. Once again, when he was a state senator from Delaware, Mr. Biden addressed our attendees at our conference held in Baltimore. I am the Long Island chapter leader, and have been so for three years now. It is the greatest honor I will ever have in my life, and I am humbled at being given the chance to lead and help others in my position.

There is no denying that stuttering does play a significant role in job-searching. For many people who stutter, they sacrifice chances to obtain meaningful employment to work at a menial position because of their guilt and shame. There are many people who would love to study higher education and start pursuing professional employment, but are truly frightened by what their speech might do to them. For the longest time, I was like that. I am very proud that I stutter and my work with the NSA is features prominently on my resume. Many employers are reluctant to hire a person who stutters because they are fearful of their abilities to have good communication skills. But I can say emphatically that there is a major difference. Do not the confuse to speak with the ability to communicate. There is absolutely no problem with being a person who stutters and one who communicates effectively.

As per an executive order issued directly by you, you had ordered all federal agencies to increase their hiring for people with disabilities. You have leveled the playing field to give people with disabilities a good chance to find work in the federal government. I have applied for numerous jobs under the Schedule A Hiring Authority, and will continue to do so. I am going to work for the federal government someday.

Sometimes you may wonder at the end of the work day if your policies will have a significant impact. Well, I can say this one resonated with me and others who have disabilities. I know stuttering is just one-there are others who have far worse disabilities than I have-paralysis, deafness, and so on. But together we are all equal. We all have the right to work and be productive. Most importantly, we have the right to be understood and to be treated as a person without labels or stereotypes. I am not a stutterer. I am, and always will be, a person who stutters.

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter, President Obama. I understand you get more than 20,000 letters and can only respond to a select few. But I am a firm believer that a revolution of change can start with one person. I'm doing my part, and you are doing yours too to help make this world a better place for people with disabilities.

Good luck with your presidency and continued success to you always.

Sincerely yours,

Steven Kaufman