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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

And what will you do in July?

Hello everyone,

Well, spring is finally here. And the telltale signs of it are abound: the mercury is rising, the sun is making more appearances, and unfortunately, so is the severe weather, depending on what region of the country you live in. The smell of grilled bratwurst and hot dogs indicate that the boys of summer have once again returned to the baseball diamond, and there were Opening Days all across the stadiums earlier this month. But you may not be aware of this, but there is also another kind of Opening Day. This is not an official holiday, but it's a time to start the official countdown to four days of a powerful bonding experience unlike anything you will ever know in your life. That's right, I am talking about the 2011 National Stuttering Association Annual Conference. Held this year in Fort Worth, Texas, the Gateway to the American South. Asking someone to describe this event is akin to asking a dentist if he can do a triple root canal in one day...asking the impossible. But if you asked me, I think I could do a great job summarizing it in one sentence: "Four days of kick-ass stuttering education, empowerment, and damn good alcohol." (Of course, you have to remember 21 Means 21).

But as much as I love what my Opening Day means to me, I am also struggling with a concept that tends to make me feel a great twinge of sadness. There are many people out there who stutter who may not want to come to an NSA conference. We know that times are very rough right now, and the economy is wrecking havoc on a lot of people. But regardless, I've traveled up and down the Northeast Megalopolis and met many of my fellow people who stutter, and despite my best intentions, the conference doesn't appeal to some people or they may feel ashamed or frightened to come to an event of this magnitude. I want to use this edition of the blog to discuss why some people feel the way they do, and maybe find some alternatives that could help someone find out about this conference. Long Beach, Calif., was my first one. And so far, it will always be my favorite just because it's the first time. The first time I could say "Hello" without shame, the first time I learned how to look someone in the eye and not stare at the floor because I felt guilty. (Something which I still struggle with to this day). I'm going to discuss some common statements I have heard and share the best way I know how to rebut these arguments. This will hopefully inspire some healthy debate and if it gets one person who is reading it to want to come to the NSA conference this year and see what it's all about, it will have been worth it. One person who will see David Seidler, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "The King's Speech" share his life story with an electrifying crowd. One person who finally meet another person who stutters and sees that maybe we are all alike, and we're fighting the same challenges every day.

Excuse #1: "A stuttering conference? Good luck with that, it'll never work." My response: If you don't think that this can work, you should know there is an audience...and a very involved one at that." If it can play in Peoria, then it will play everywhere. For those who do not know what this quote means, please allow me to explain. "Will it play in Peoria?" refers to the city of Peoria, Ill., a city that to many is the epitome of Midwestern values. In the days of vaudeville, apparently there was a quote to the effect of "We're playing in Peoria" and over the years, the quote began to manifest itself in different ways. So to be asked "Will it play in Peoria?" means will there be a base, will there be a niche for it. 700+ people who stutter selling out a hotel can't be wrong. Maybe you'd like to meet some of our members who can prove that stuttering can work and be an integegral part of the lives they lead and the ones they change: One young woman from Kansas who wasn't sure she could be an SLP, and now graduated with her degree. How about a teenager from South Dakota who helped inspire a statewide conference about stuttering? It will play. Maybe Homey D. Clown doesn't think certain things will play, but I can certainly affirm that a stuttering conference certainly does, and much more!

Excuse #2: "I don't want to spend my summer vacation like this...boring." My response: Unless you're one of the few who live off the I-4 corridor in Florida or I-405 in Southern California, summer is not exactly year round. We only have three months to take advantage of 80-degree days, crashing ocean waves, good hiking conditions. For some people, their idea of a good vacation is this: going to South Beach and getting smashed at the bars, or going to Las Vegas and bumping and grinding with a woman you won't even remember the next day. Is that really how you want to remember your summer? Imagine returning on the first day of your school year or semester and receiving the obligatory "How was your summer?" You can say "I spent it with my best friends Jim Beam and Jack Daniels" or you can say "I had a frustrating year, but I learned how to channel my anger over stuttering and take control of my life." You can say how you met the most unique people and shared late nights just laughing and crying, and coming together for an emotional banquet on the last night of the conference. Who knows, you may be even able to say you met a really special person's been known to happen!

Excuse #3: "I got better things to spend my money my car payment. Or going to the casinos." My response: Hey we all need to get around. If you want to donate money to the likes of Donald Trump, that's all well and good with me. But for those who are buying a new car, look at it this way. The moment you drive the car off the dealership lot, the car loses 30 percent of its value, and just continues to depreciate. I can guarantee you the lessons you learn here will appreciate in value every time you use them in your daily life. And with every conference you go to, they will grow stronger and become your rock and salvation through good times and bad ones.

Excuse #4: "I really can't be around others who stutter. It just isn't for me, and I'm not ready." My response: This is something that isn't an uncommon feeling. For many people who stutter, it can be frightening enough just to go into a restaurant, or even to go to the local multiplex and buy a movie ticket at the box office. Multiply that by a thousand and you can feel empathy that for a person who struggles with this every day, being in a hotel and surrounded by others 24/7 for four days. But we are in this together. We were all there once. We remember our first, not that one LOL. We remember the feeling of meeting each other, saying our names and knowing that no matter how long it took, what mattered is we were there with one goal in mind.

I hope there may be someone who is reading this who may just want to go to an NSA conference but is still wondering what to do. There's no better time like the present. If ever you felt that you might want to see what it's all about it, then get to Texas. It doesn't matter whether you hike, fly, rent a donkey (well you can if you are at the Grand Canyon) and go on the side of I-30. Just be there. I promise you-you'll going to see yourself in a brand new way. And you'll love it. Go to for the details.

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