Sunday, April 24, 2011

Just Whose Reality Is It Anyway?

Hello everyone,

Everywhere you look these days, it's evident that reality television has invaded our worlds and shows no signs of stopping. It started with "The Real World" on MTV, spread to a certain real estate mogul who may run for the highest office in the United States ending each show with "You're fired," and there have even been movies that discuss different aspects of the reality craze: from Ron Howard's "EDtv" to the independent "Series 7: The Contenders." But just a few days ago, the organization that I am heavily involved with, the National Stuttering Association, was directly asked to participate.

I received a phone call from a representative at Ryan Seacrest Productions, based on the West Coast, to discuss my interest in participating in a reality show based around stuttering. My name had been passed on by a colleague who I work with at the NSA, and as I was listening to what was described, I felt my heart racing. Wow, I thought, this is really a chance to do something good and help people who stutter. Now you might be saying, "But I already do that anyway." Yes, I do. Not only am I a chapter leader, but I am also an advocate and an ambassador for the NSA. I could be on television and spread the word about the NSA and just how phenomenal it really is. Right now, with the major victories achieved by "The King's Speech" (winning Oscars for Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture), stuttering awareness has never been as important before, as it is right now. The representative asked me if I would be happy to receive a flyer, and I said sure. As I opened up the attachment, I began to furrow my brow in curiosity when I read that the show wanted to pair me up with a "life coach," someone who could transform my life around and wanted to use an approach which resembled hypnosis. Or as the person told me, "You'll be getting $40,000 worth of therapy for free." This so-called "life coach," would be known as "The Fixer," as he stated he could help you overcome any kind of major life challenge that was preventing you from accomplishing what you wanted.

As it was expected, this naturally drew comments from all different sides of the spectrum of NSA members. Chapter leaders are both new and seasoned professionals, and we also have leaders who are in high school and college. There was a great concern that this company was really not all that interested in truly finding out about stuttering, but rather they were looking for ratings and help promote the agenda of this coach. Some even believed that this show was merely looking to cash in on the fact that now "stuttering is hot." Some members were contacted in different states, including Florida and even north of the border, in Canada. The National Stuttering Association believes that people who stutter not only deserve respect and tolerance, but that above all else, people are human beings first and foremost. Safe to say, their biggest concern was not having their members be exploited or looked at as the butt of a joke.

However, at one time the NSA was featured in a reality show. When the NSA hosted their annual conference in Atlanta back in 2007, we had three of our members play prominent roles in a series broadcast on MTV called "True Life." The episode, called "I Stutter," followed their daily lives as they faced a unique set of challenges. One member, "Melissa," was trying to find a level of comfort with her speech-she would at times identify herself by another name which was easier to say. Another person, "Todd," was an SLP graduate student at West Virginia University and was in danger of being evicted because he could not get a job. Another woman, "Lacey," was trying to become a beauty queen in a state pageant and was scared of having to do well on the oral interview. They were followed around the conference and treated fairly and with respect. They were not coached or prompted to say anything that they did not want to. In fact, "Melissa" is still good friends with the producers to this day. The NSA will be the first organization to offer assistance if there is just and proper representation. When the movie "Talladega Nights" came out, and Columbia Pictures wanted support from NASCAR, the executives at NASCAR insisted their drivers be shown in the best way possible, and not in some stereotypical manner.

After much deliberation, the NSA felt that the right thing to do was to ask its chapter leaders (and members) to refrain from participating in the show. While the NSA may not have any official codes of conduct, I take my responsibilities seriously in the community, and I cannot in good faith have accepted the way I might have been portrayed. They did acknowledge for some people, going on the show might be a good way to help self-confidence. Then again, you can join the NSA too! The NSA also went as far to ask for support from other organizations to join them in their support to boycott the show. What is truly wonderful is that although there may be other organizations that work toward different goals with regard to stuttering, we can see common ground and there is mutual respect.

What caused a great deal of strife is the view that people who stutter need to be "fixed." You can fix a car. You can even fix your cat or dog (which I recommend as an animal lover). But people who stutter don't have to be fixed, nor should they want to. I feel horrible in retrospect that I even considered this program. If I am guilty of something, maybe I was guilty of believing that someone really wanted to help me by giving me a platform where I could share how the NSA has transformed my life and more. I think it's safe to say though that I don't need to be fixed.

For the longest time, I felt like my stuttering made me a mistake. I now firmly say my stuttering made more resilient, and knowing that someone out there will see just who I am.

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


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