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Giving Voice to Stammerers

Non-Mixity and Speaking in Self-Help Groups

By meeting in self-help groups, far from the usual stigmas, people with stammers are able to talk together. This kind of non-mixity fosters a distancing from the norms of good speech, but it does not eradicate language inequalities between people who stammer.

From the beginning of the 20th century, patient movements have challenged the social control exercised by the medical establishment (Barbot 2002; Pinell and Broqua 2002). Self-help and talk groups, developed in the United States in the 1930s, thus played a crucial role in the social critique of the relations of domination inherent in the healthcare relationship (Gelly and Pitti 2016). Today, these struggles can be found in movements defending the empowerment or autonomy of users in the face of a system and healthcare professionals they deem too little attentive to patients’ experiences. Despite the diversity of causes these groups represent, they have in common that they give a voice to individuals who are usually deprived of it, both within medical institutions and in the public arena, as shown by the example of people who stammer. Stammering is defined as a speech disorder manifested by repetitions and lengthening of words, syllables or phrases, and sometimes by body movements. It therefore constitutes a major obstacle in ordinary interactions as well as in more "ritualized" events (Goffman 1975). By getting together, stammerers, who find themselves in a dominated position from the point of view of speaking up in everyday interactions as well as in the care relationship, try to make their "voiceless" voice heard.

In the same way that non-mixity has been a tool of struggle and emancipation in the face of class, race or gender domination (Jacquemart and Masclet 2017; Martin-Breteau 2020), enabling those concerned to come together among themselves, self-help groups offer stammerers a space they lack in everyday life. Based on the observation of self-help sessions [1] conducted with participants, [2] this article shows how these spaces can enable a suspension and critique of symbolic domination through speech (Grignon and Passeron 1989; Bourdieu 1982), while reconducting certain forms of social and linguistic inequality among stammerers themselves.

The power of speaking far from others

Accustomed to "being spoken to" more than they speak, stammerers find themselves objectively assigned to the lowest positions on the scale of "good" speech, among the various categories of speech-dominated. In concrete terms, their daily experience is one of "speech hell", generating a fear of "speaking badly" and contributing to a disposition to silence, as Loïc, a 28-year-old computer scientist, testifies: "In fact, I-I [3] didn’t speak too much, in fact, I didn’t speak so as not to freeze up." Referring to the teasing he endured as a child, Idrissa (35-year-old home help and student) explains how laughter and harassment made him mute: "I had t-t-t-t-two teachers who really hurt me. [...] He forced me to go to the blackboard, to participate in class. [...] You become a fairground f-f-f freak show." Mitigating some of the effects of domination, private space is seen by many stammerers as a more protective space than public space. But while it’s often easier to speak up in the family or with friends than in front of strangers, these "refuges" are not free of power relations, since they bring stammerers and non-stammerers face to face.

The dispossession of speech with which stammerers are confronted frequently pushes them towards private spaces marked by self-segregation and which are to a certain extent "hidden", in which their way of speaking is not subject to the same social classifications. Self-help groups dedicated to stammering, founded in France in the 1970s, fit into this logic, presenting themselves as "spaces for mutual support and discussion between people who stammer." Drawn up by the self-help group leaders of eight major cities, the charter they adopted in 2012 stipulates that access to these groups is reserved for people who stammer, although the "group [may] occasionally receive non-stammerers with the unanimous agreement of the participants [...] professionals, parents [or] spouses". In practice, these external visitors are more often journalists or students (in speech therapy, psychology or the social sciences). This rule made it possible for me to be present as a non-stammering researcher, provided I made it clear from the outset that I didn’t stammer. Exceptions to the non-mixity rule are therefore commonplace, but they are punctual and subject to control. At each (bi)monthly session, these self-help groups bring together a dozen or so non-mixed stammerers from a wide variety of backgrounds and social positions [4] (both men and women in Dontant, only men in Honfeuil). By guaranteeing their members a "right of exclusivity" and a "sense of ownership", these speech groups constitute group territories (Goffman 1968, p. 294), enabling stammerers to exercise "unusual control" and gain the power to speak.

At the start of each session, during a ritual round-table discussion, participants are invited by the organizing members to introduce themselves. After stating their first name and the age at which their "problem" appeared, they describe their "history with stammering", their experience of speaking and their expectations of self-help: "What interests me here is sharing and getting advice on how to deal with stammering," explains Yannick, a 46-year-old journalist. Whether the exchanges concern concrete problems that stammerers encounter on a daily basis (being mocked at a job interview, fear of passing on their stammering to their son, etc.) or consist of more abstract reflections (administrative recognition of stammering as a handicap, use of the term "stammerer", etc.), they reveal a representation of self-help as a space where one is "not ashamed" to speak. A 54-year-old librarian, Catherine feels that she "doesn’t talk too much in life" and isn’t "a big talker", and compares the group to a "bubble where you can be yourself". For her, these moments represent an "enchanted parenthesis", an expression reminiscent of the "Sunday parenthesis" described by Claude Grignon and Jean-Claude Passeron (1989, p. 81) as a moment of respite and "oblivion of domination" occurring under certain conditions in the lives of the dominated.

Remaining among fellow stammerers, and even more so in a place of mutual acquaintance, enables those who are usually deprived of (and deny themselves) the right to speak to do so, and to share their almost unspeakable, even taboo experiences, without the risk of losing face.

From suspending to criticizing linguistic domination?

As an essential condition for stammerers to speak up and open up, this form of self-segregation is an attempt to define new norms for speaking up, so that they are no longer "obliged to monitor and control themselves" during interactions (Goffman 1975, p. 26). Although poorly codified, exchanges within self-help groups are ritualized (Fainzang 1992) and reveal norms that are in part free of those that weigh on these dominated people in ordinary times. Contrary to the "normal" conditions of communication under which stammerers are sometimes forced to speak despite their difficulties, "nothing is imposed" [5] within the group. This rule allows everyone to remain silent, or conversely to express themselves at length by stammering, without being judged inadmissible. The dominant norms that define "good" speaking are thus put at a distance: authorized and legitimate, the blockages, repetitions or untimely silences associated with stammering do not give rise to calls to order.

Exceptions to the non-mixity of these groups, like the moments when the tacit rules of "free" speech are challenged, reveal the codes of speech that prevail for stammerers in this space (and which seem to apply differently to non-stammerers). Such is the case during the intervention of Bernard, a documentary filmmaker who has come to film a session. As the round-table discussion got underway, he interrupted and invited those who had already spoken to "repeat exactly what [they] have just said", before pointing out to Clothilde: "Can you just repeat for me: ’I’m going to let Bruno speak’? Then watch out, I’ll give the top. Go ahead!" By cutting them off, telling them to repeat themselves, and even repeating their sentences without their having been prepared for it, this guest transgresses a number of unspoken rules. Surprised, the participants humorously point out the inappropriateness of this request. [6] They don’t see this event as a transgression of self-help norms.

Within these groups, the suspension of the norms of legitimate speech is discreetly defended, and is therefore not synonymous with an explicit, political critique of them. What is more important to stammerers is to keep divisive points of view outside the boundaries of the group, as demonstrated by the debate surrounding the role of speech therapists in the management of stammering. Although "no therapeutic method should be imposed during these meetings", the non-mixed nature of the group provides a space for exchanges on the subject, and an attempt to emancipate the group from the prescriptive spaces of speech therapy. In this way, discussion groups can sometimes be used to express certain forms of hostility towards speech therapy work. However, criticisms or positions that are too strong or vehement are systematically nuanced or censored within the groups. The relationship with speech therapists is in fact ambivalent: they are seen both as transmitters of legitimate ways of speaking (from which these non-mixed spaces seek to emancipate themselves locally) and as allies in distancing themselves from them. Indeed, many speech therapists encourage stammerers to see their disorder as a difference, rather than a defect or abnormality.

In this case, non-mixity does not serve to critically challenge the norms of "correct" speech. On the contrary, the participants express their disapproval of those who seek to politicize the subject of stammering. They feel they have no place in self-help.

Persistent social and linguistic inequalities

These parentheses of domination need to be qualified. Indeed, the social injunction to speak and to speak "well" remains present in these spaces: at Honfeuil, Loïc insists that participants speak up and "develop"; at Dontant, Marc doesn’t hesitate to interrupt certain presentations he deems too concise. [7] These calls to order come from regulars who, in addition to their seniority within these spaces, have other forms of resources that allow them to do so. The hierarchies that emerge here show that the boundaries of these "protected" and "apart" groups are not, however, impervious to the normative expectations in terms of speech and speaking out that they claim to keep at bay. In this way, these spaces free themselves to a limited extent from the norms of legitimate discourse and the social constraints that govern speaking out in general.

These reserved territories are more widely traversed by social relations of class, gender and race. In fact, stammerers are unequally endowed with economic and cultural capital, and their willingness to speak out always depends on their gender, educational trajectory and social position. Observation of speech groups reveals significant differences between those with the best command of the legitimate language and the dominant norms associated with speech, who often occupy the highest social positions, and the rest. Bruno (an accountant), Yannick (a journalist), Jean (an engineer) and Léa (a student at an engineering school) are more in demand and more frequently in a position to speak, while Clothilde (a secretary), Véronique (an administrative assistant in a local authority department), Fatima (a housewife) and Catherine (a librarian) speak less. Since stammering is highly prevalent in men, [8] and increases with age (the proportion of men increases in adulthood), women who stammer are also in the minority in self-help groups, and are less vocal. In a male-dominated environment, gender reinforces these dispositions to speak up and speak out: the most shy are more likely to be women, even if some of them have been attending these groups for over ten years.

These differentiated relationships to speech and language have unequal practical effects for stammerers: the benefits they derive from non-mixity are not the same. During my interview with Yannick (journalist), he explains: "You realize you’re not alone! [...] It’s also a great time to train each other. [...] I try to keep what we say in my head so I can remember it at [work] meetings and play it down." This extract shows how the participants with the most cultural capital (and more specifically, educational capital) seek to transfer to other "mixed" contexts (which bring together stammerers and non-stammerers) some of the resources produced in this self-segregated environment (ability to put disability into perspective, certainty of not being alone, confidence in public speaking, etc.). More than concrete techniques for speaking "better" or tricks for taking the floor more often, it’s the willingness to feel less illegitimate to speak that this self-segregation produces. Non-mixity thus has symbolic and practical effects on the use of speech and representations of "good" speech among stammerers beyond the bubble formed by the speech group. Clothilde (secretary) recalls what attending the group for so long has done for her: "I’m less afraid of... of... I’m less afraid of hiding it [my stammering]. [...] my outlook has changed.

However, while these non-mixed groups can be seen as spaces of secondary socialization, where language dispositions and speaking practices are formed and transformed, many participants qualify the lasting, transposable nature of the resources acquired through self-segregation. It’s as if, once the boundaries of the non-mixed group have been crossed, the feeling of legitimacy to speak fades away, or becomes all the more difficult to put into practice as speakers no longer share the same stigmatizing experience of stammering.

Susceptible of being stigmatized because of the way they speak as soon as they open their mouths in (almost) all social contexts, people who stammer seek to escape domination by getting together and establishing "new" speech norms. Self-help groups represent one of the few spaces where the usual judgments surrounding ways of speaking are exercised differently and with less force. Non-mixity is thus one of these "ways of ’dealing with’" domination (Grignon and Passeron 1989, p. 79). However, despite their not inconsiderable effects on the socialization of those concerned, these parentheses are both spatially and temporally circumscribed, and are modulated by their class and gender affiliations. Thus, far from being the site of an explicit and political critique of the norms of legitimate speech, these reserved territories nonetheless offer an extra-ordinary space for speech to those for whom speaking is not a matter of course, a space that remains traversed by the hierarchy that distinguishes those who speak "well" from others.


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To cite this article:

Abigail Bourguignon & translated by Oliver Waine, “Giving Voice to Stammerers. Non-Mixity and Speaking in Self-Help Groups”, Metropolitics, 19 March 2024. URL :

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