As a person who stutters, I was absolutely thrilled when I saw Lazaro Arbos audition for the 12th season of American Idol. Though The King's Speech was a breakthrough for stuttering awareness in American media, having a person who stutters in the spotlight as opposed to a fluent actor is invaluable. Finally, we have someone with whom we can identify. Members of the stuttering community can deeply relate given our own journeys with speech disfluency. Sincere kudos to Mr. Arbos for sharing his journey with millions of viewers nationwide. Though recently eliminated from the singing contest, his participation has left a great impact on the stuttering community.
Having spent most of my childhood in speech therapy for my disfluency, I have an idea of what Mr. Arbos has experienced. With time and much practice, my stutter has gotten far more manageable, though at 23 years old it has not yet disappeared. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, over three million Americans stutter and those that stutter are four times as likely to be male. I am an adult female with a stutter, so technically I'm like a unicorn. Or so I tell all of my fluent friends.
Throughout the last year, I worked on a master's thesis which looks into my life with a stutter. I dug through media representations like the shaming classroom scene in Billy Madison, the woman who fake-stutters on Glee, and even a pimp with a stutter in R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" saga. Largely, the representations that I found were negative, and none of the actors even have real-life speech disfluencies. There has never been a better time for a person like Lazaro Arbos to take the stage.
When I first saw his audition accompanied by his Idol profile, I was surprised at how sentimental it was. The Idol producers sought to capture the hearts of Americans with a story about overcoming disability. The American Idol hopeful fell into tears as he recounted his trials, and we shared in feeling his journey's highs and lows. I realize Mr. Arbos needed to disclose his stutter since so many people do not identify with the speech impediment; however, the piece was orchestrated to pull mercilessly at your heartstrings. After all, who doesn't love a touching story?
But it was pity itself that stirred up controversy. Inside the stuttering community, there was both support and contention about voting for Mr. Arbos. Do I vote for him because he is "one of us" or do I vote because he, indeed, performed well? This brought an important point to light: What is important is Mr. Arbos himself and not his stutter.
Professor of Speech Pathology and Audiology at West Virginia University, Kenneth O. St. Louis emphasizes in Person-First Labeling and Stuttering (1999), that it is more respectful to address someone as a 'person who stutters' rather than a 'stutterer.' Society is quick to judge someone based on an aspect of themselves that is viewed as atypical. For example, saying that someone is a "person with psychosis" is far less damning than saying someone is "psychotic." Everyone has a different opinion of the usage. But it brings up the important point of the person. We are disabled and proud, but first off we are people. So have we sincerely considered Mr. Arbos as just a person?
The idea of Mr. Arbos as a "pity vote" should have never been possible. Most of our societal representations of disability in media are sadly lacking. Lazaro, we owe you an apology. Your speech should have never been considered a reason to vote for your singing. You are an accomplished, talented, and driven person who just happens to stutter.