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Can Negative Societal Effects of Speech Disorders and Discrimination Against People With Verbal Disorders Finally End?
By Miriam Edelman

May is Better Speech and Hearing Month, which raises awareness about communication disorders.

President Joe Biden’s stutter has become fodder for comedians. Biden is the first president with a stutter. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah covered Biden’s first 2020 presidential election rally by including clips of Biden misspeaking during that event. In December 2021, Noah mocked how Biden talks. Saturday Night Live also has mocked Biden’s disability. Biden is also ridiculed overseas, with Australian comedian Dave Hughes tweeting, “Joe Biden just had a mad struggle stringing sentences together. Is it the autocue?” Often, though not always, there has not been major backlash, but Hughes faced criticism for his tweet.

All too often, due to no fault of their own, people with speech impediments suffer. Their disability prevents them from having the life they should be able to live.

Speech impairments can be lifelong, and they can be caused by accidents, illnesses, and abuse. Roughly 7.5 million people in the United States and 8% to 9% of young people have speech disorders including aphrasia, dysarthria, voice disturbances, stuttering, slowed speech, slurred speech, and trouble articulating words. Some try to live with their problems through speech therapy, covering their mouths, pretending to cough or yawn, not talking, not using words that cause problems, altering the order of words, and using filler noises.

It’s difficult for some people with speech impairments to communicate and to be understood. Aside from having trouble talking, they can be subject to others’ negative thoughts and behavior. Sometimes people don’t fully pay attention to a person with speech issues because they get irritated trying to understand what the person says. They might interrupt and try to answer for the person experiencing difficulty. Some mock and tease people with speech disorders, imitating the way they talk and sound; some ask where the individuals are from, while others ask if they have a particular accent, even when their speech clearly doesn’t sound like that accent. These experiences can be painful for people with speech impairments and can cause fear of ridicule, irritation, anger, shame, and withdrawal. As the Supreme Court has said, “Society's myths and fears about disability and disease are as handicapping as are the physical limitation that flow from actual impairments.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has three definitions of a disability: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual,” “a record of such an impairment,” and “being regarded as having such an impairment.” These definitions often apply to individuals with speech impediments.

Having speech impediments can result in detrimental employment outcomes. Some people link verbal issues with cognitive impairment even when individuals have no intellectual problems. People with speech disorders who excel academically can still be perceived as less capable than they actually are. People with speech impairments might be reluctant to discuss their speech disorders and could believe that disclosure could hurt their chances of being hired. The ADA prohibits employers from asking about disabilities during interviews. Although a typical interview question is “What is your greatest weakness?,” a person with speech issues might still not want to discuss those problems. Thus, they might not be fully able to show their true potential. Employers might not hire such people primarily because of their speech problems even though the ADA prohibits discrimination during hiring.

Even after being hired, people with speech impairments can have problems. They can be excluded, discriminated, isolated and forced to do tasks that would be challenging for them, such as talking on the phone. Their employers might think that such duties should not be difficult at all, and when they express trepidation about these tasks, the employers could give them a poor performance evaluation. Some people who stutter are not promoted because of their speech and might be underused due to employers’ incorrect beliefs about their disability.

People with speech issues can be caught in a catch-22 situation when trying to claim their speech problems as a covered disability. If they claim a disability, potential employers may say they are incapable of doing a job. And if they do not disclose their disability, their speech may be perceived as abnormal, and they may not get the job.

There are additional reasons people may not claim a disability and therefore do not participate in a level employment field. They might not want to classify themselves in that way, believing that the label encourages the “victim mentality.” Furthermore, they could perceive their impediments as being less severe than other disabilities. Some also might not realize that their speech issues could be designated as disabilities under the law.

Most people with certain types of developmental speech disorders have limited career prospects. People with speech impairments are more likely than others to work in unskilled or manual work, much of which does not pay well. Due to financial barriers, they could have less access to health care. Some individuals who have trouble speaking are recommended for certain positions such as freight stocker, accountant, food preparer, and landscapers because those jobs require little verbal communication. Some of these may not be interesting to people with speech impairments and may not allow them to show their true potential. It’s unfair that people might not be able to have a truly meaningful career in which they could excel due to a lifelong condition over which they have little or no control.

Under the ADA, “auxiliary aids and services” refer to techniques people with speech impairments may use to communicate with others. These include using a speech-to-speech device, keeping paper and pencil on hand so they can write out words that others cannot comprehend from their speech, and requiring more time for communication. A loophole in the ADA states that employers can refuse an accommodation to a person with disabilities due to undue hardship or cost. In such cases, employers must try to find another accommodation that would not be a hardship. However, they might not be able to and thus might not accommodate people with major speech impediments.

People with speech disorders can suffer socially due to their disabilities. The quality of their friendships may be lower than that of others and they may have fewer acquaintances. They can also experience more bullying, and negative social interactions can lead to a reduced quality life.

Progress has been made in recent years, but more needs to be done. In 2008, the ADA was amended, giving additional disability protections. Before these amendments, in some cases, stuttering was not found to be a disability. After the 2008 amendments, however, several cases yielded different outcomes. Courts found that stuttering could decrease speaking, a major life activity.

Laws pertaining to speech issues in education should be modified to help children with speech impairments be successful. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants children with a confirmed diagnosis of a speech and language disorder eligibility for special education accommodations. Some parents might be wary of placing their children in special education, thinking that it could prevent them from taking regular and/or advanced classes in which they might excel. Since 2011, students with speech problems are not automatically entitled for speech-languages services. Students would receive such assistance only if their disabilities negatively affected their education. All children with these impediments should be able to receive those services if they want them. They should not suffer because some people believe that speech issues do not hurt their education.

Every school should have at least a part-time onsite speech therapist. Some larger school districts might have one or more certified speech-language pathologists who help students during school hours. Many students in small school districts in rural and other areas lack access to such medical professionals. Local laws could mandate that each public school in the area have a registered speech therapist for a certain amount of time. Some schools could share the same speech therapist. Thus, every student would be able to participate in speech therapy. School-based speech therapists could meet with students before and after school, not just during the school day, to avoid disrupting coursework.

We need to help people with speech issues and other disabilities and ensure that they are treated equally. We should avoid stereotyping them, having low expectations of them, and allowing them to be left behind in society.

— Miriam Edelman is a policy professional in Washington, D.C. She interned/worked for the US Congress (US Senate and the US House of Representatives) for about five years.