I was born with a speech impediment. Ideas flourish in my mind, but they just don’t transfer smoothly through my vocal chords like other people. Having this stuttering disability subjected me to a cloud of hopelessness for a large portion of my life. I thought my dreams would never come to fruition, that I could never feel normal or accepted. Sure, public speaking is a common fear, but I could not even speak privately; in fact, for the longest time, I did not believe I had a voice.
As far back as I can remember, I have stuttered, and expressing myself has never come as simply as it does for most people. Stuttering is developed in the voice box with something like a clasp cutting off air through the valves. I never know when a block might occur, but it feels like a damaged, teetering building about to collapse in my throat. When it comes crashing down, my body is programmed to react rashly, ranging from shutting my eyes, flailing my arms and shaking my head, to making foreign sounds and other irregular body movements. It feels like you are drowning in a lake. You can do outrageous things to try and save yourself, but I need to do outrageous things simply to keep the meaning of one sentence audible. If I am unsuccessful in breaking through, I drown: lose the essence of my sentence. When this happens I am forced to go through the whole fiasco again, while also managing the side glares and stares: the unwanted attention stuttering grants. I have always felt trapped because something so damn basic for most people is always an uphill battle for me.
Making the transition to the real world was no different. I was terrified I would fall behind and not live up to society’s standards. Throughout the first weeks I was looking for an internship, the pressure weighed on me.
My stutter and my fear of public speaking were still ruling my life.
One of my first interviews for a technical internship was at a huge software corporation. I asked the hiring manager if we could conduct the technical interview over Google Chats since phone calls have never worked well for me. He agreed. Forty-five minutes into the virtual interview, I had nailed every question, from object-oriented programming to brain teasers to solving algorithms, I knew my stuff. He displayed his approval with a smiley-face emoticon every time I finished answering a question! At the end of the interview, he said I was “overqualified” and “would make an outstanding addition to his team.” However, he wanted to do a quick phone interview right then, right now…
Immediately, my body was filled with the same debilitating fear that use to overtake me when my teacher would purposefully call on me in front of the entire class. While repressing my anguish, I agreed to the call in hopes that I would be able to do it. Finally overcome my impediment. I answered the phone at 12:06, the conversation was over at 12:08. “We feel like your language barrier would not be a good fit for our team. Thank you for your time, and please keep yourself updated on our career page.” CLICK
Grasping for air and wiping my sweaty forehead, a rush of affirmation for all those who scorned me almost knocked me off my chair and into a sea of tears. There are few moments darker than the moment you realize you have been living a lie your entire life. After telling myself over and over I could do anything despite my stutter, the bitter truth shattered my hopeful illusion. I am nothing but a stutter, a disability, a detriment.
From my lowest point in life, hopeless and defeated, I began studying the world around me, especially those with hardships. What I saw was that, from the kid who grew up in poverty, to the kid in the suburbs, to the special Olympics athlete winning a gold medal, to the star basketball player, and even to the people who seem to have it all, every person has a battle, a lifelong struggle. Understanding this truth revealed to me the fact that what defines us as people is not our struggles but our ability to overcome them.
When people define Dr. Martin Luther King, it is not by the humiliation he faced or the oppression he suffered but by his victory against the hatred that dominated his life. President Franklin Roosevelt is not characterized by the paralysis he developed after contracting polio, but his ability to overcome it in order to lead a nation.
Through this understanding, my stutter, which was once a source of anguish and imprisonment, transformed into the very fuel needed to jumpstart my stagnant life. I became more motivated than ever to show that my stutter does not control me, that I am great, and that, most importantly, I can do great things for other people. For months I set about refining my interviewing techniques through rigorous practice and reading. I built a brand around my disability that showed employers how it empowers me to do great things and unlocks valuable skills. No longer was I the detriment whose “language barrier” would not fit on teams, I became the engineer whose stutter created unique perceptive abilities, first-class problem solving capabilities, unmatched grit and an unstoppable motivation to overcome. I ended the hiring season with seven different internship offers from the top technology intuitions in Silicon Valley and endless future opportunities.
This small victory in my life will not be my defining moment. It has set me on a path to overcome the impossible in order to be defined by what I chose and not by my disability. I understand it is not easy to deviate from your own routines, your norms, your history, just as it was hard for me to break out of mine. But understand that we are defined by our ability to do the impossible. So if you are willing to fight, nothing can stop you. Stuttering has taught me compassion, understanding and resilience. My voice is real and my voice is strong. From emotional imprisonment to newfound empowerment, I’ve discovered my passion, and I owe it to my very own agent of change. My stutter.
by Brandon White
Computer Science Major at Southern Methodist University