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Meet Three Bay Area Artists Working to Amplify the Voices of People Who Stutter

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A triptych of three women in front of microphones in a recording booth.
Nina G (left), Maya Chupkov and Gina Chin-Davis are Bay Area artists working to get more representation for people in media and entertainment fields who stutter. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

This week is San Francisco’s inaugural Stuttering Awareness Week. The annual event, created by a resolution passed by the city's Board of Supervisors at a meeting Tuesday, is the first of its kind in the state, and one among very few in the country.

A group of creative Bay Area women is leading the effort to help draw attention to the needs of the more than 3 million adults in this country — and roughly 70 million worldwide — who’ve faced bullying and discrimination because of the way they speak. The women also are seeking to make more room for verbal diversity.

Editor's note: All the people who stutter quoted in this story asked for their written speech to be presented in standard written English, meaning without disfluencies. A disfluency is any break or disruption that occurs in the flow of speech.

Stand-up comedian Nina G: On a mission to destigmatize stuttering through humor

Nina G doesn't only make jokes about stuttering. The Oakland-based comedian said these jokes are a relatively small part of her act. But when she does make stuttering jokes, they get a big reaction.

"The other thing I get when I perform is people think that I've been faking it, that I'm fake stuttering," said the 47-year-old comedian during a recent set, eliciting an outburst of laughter from the audience. "But if I were faking it, I would be the Meryl Streep of stuttering. You can't fake it this good."

G said that, even as a little kid growing up in Alameda, she wanted to be a stand-up comedian. But she didn’t think she could.

"Growing up, my one role model was a cartoon pig who didn't wear pants," she told KQED, alluding to Porky Pig, the vintage Looney Tunes animated character who had a marked stutter.

So for decades, G put aside her dream of making people laugh.

"I didn't think that it would be possible for anyone who stuttered," she said. "I thought that I would have to be fluent in order to be a comic." “By “fluent,” G means speaking fluidly.

The turning point for G, who said she started stuttering at the age of 8, didn't come until she was in her mid-30s and attended a National Stuttering Association (NSA) conference in 2009.

"When you stutter, you're interrupted all the time," said G, who went on to write a memoir about stuttering, as well as a book about the Bay Area comedy scene. "Being at that conference helped me understand how much I was interrupting myself in my wants and my desires and my dreams."

She decided to make several changes in her life. "One of those changes was starting stand-up comedy, because I was like, 'What are the things I've always wanted to do?' and stand-up was the No. 1 thing on that list," she said.

'Still very much misunderstood'

Despite the fact that the U.S. currently has a president who stutters and, since the late 1980s, an annual National Stuttering Awareness Week every May to draw attention to the issue, public awareness around stuttering remains scant, at best.

"We live in a world now where we're trying to be so inclusive of people of any demographic," said Dr. Heather Grossman, a speech language pathologist who specializes in working with people who stutter, and the director of the American Institute for Stuttering. "Yet people who stutter aren't really part of that movement. They're still very much misunderstood."

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Grossman said there are many myths surrounding stuttering. "One is that nervousness causes stuttering," she said. "Another is that if you would just breathe, or just slow down, or just relax, it would go away."

The stigma attached to stuttering can cause people to live lives of isolation and silence.

"Having this overall feeling that you have to be fluent to be a voice that's worth hearing, that’s not a good feeling, and it's not a good thing," said NSA board chair Kristine Short. "So the more voices that we hear that stutter, the more that we make place for disfluent voices, the more inclusive our community will be."

Nina G is one of several local artists who stutter working toward that goal. A group of them, including podcaster Maya Chupkov, appeared on the steps of City Hall recently to help present San Francisco’s Stuttering Awareness Week.

Podcaster Maya Chupkov: Bringing more verbally diverse voices to the media landscape

Chupkov, who said she began stuttering around the age of 4 or 5, has a background in local politics. She led the charge in getting the local version of Stuttering Awareness Week on the Board of Supervisors' radar.

"I want to thank you, Supervisor Dean Preston, for introducing this resolution that will help spread more awareness about stuttering so we feel more safe to be openly ourselves," said Chupkov, referring to the supervisor responsible for championing her proposal with the board.

Podcaster and activist Maya Chupkov helps launch the legislation for San Francisco's inaugural Stuttering Awareness Week in front of City Hall. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

For years, Chupkov said, she didn't see herself as capable of doing something as scary as speaking in public.

"When I was growing up, I didn't know anyone else who stuttered," she said. "It was just very lonely, and I just felt that no one understood me, and I was just constantly hiding a big part of myself."

Then, last fall, the 29-year-old San Francisco resident was inspired by a suggestion from her fiancé to launch a podcast for and about the stuttering community.

"As soon as he said it, a light bulb just went off in my head," Chupkov said. "I realized that I needed to do this because there are so many people who stutter out there, especially young people that don't know anyone else that stutters. Having a show that they can listen to on a consistent basis I think will really do wonders in helping people who stutter feel less alone and feel more confident."

Chupkov launched her series, "Proud Stutter," on October 22, 2021 — International Stuttering Awareness Day. She originally co-hosted the project with her friend Cynthia Chin, a nonstuttering ally, but now hosts solo. The first season, which included an interview with Nina G, has already racked up more than 11,000 downloads. Chupkov said she’s gearing up to produce a second season.

Chupkov said making the podcast has made her more self-confident. In addition to doing things like public speaking in front of city officials, she's also hosting several events as part of San Francisco's Stuttering Awareness Week.

"Before I started the podcast, I didn't really consider myself as a creative person. And then I realized I just wasn't nurturing that part of myself," said Chupkov. "As soon as I started the podcast and I was tapping into my creative side more, that's when I was introduced to this completely new Maya that had this creative side that I just never nurtured before."

Chupkov said it makes sense for San Francisco to be at the forefront of activism around stuttering today, because of the city's long history of advocating for this issue. The NSA was founded as the National Stuttering Project in San Francisco in 1977. Its members were instrumental in establishing National Stuttering Awareness Week in 1988. "There is a big community of people who stutter here," she said.

The podcaster is hoping the passing of the Stuttering Awareness Week resolution in San Francisco will inspire other cities around the country to do the same, and has even produced a digital toolkit to help legislators and advocates in this effort.

Filmmaker and writer Gina Chin-Davis: Advocating for stuttering to be part of everyday life

Thirty-seven-year-old Gina Chin-Davis is a filmmaker and writer in Richmond. She said she started stuttering at the age of 4, and worked to hide her stutter for many years. These days, Chin-Davis identifies as a "mostly covert stutterer."

"This means that I can kind of pass, and a lot of people are surprised when they hear or I tell them that I stutter, but I do," Chin-Davis said.

She said trying to tamp down her stutter was exhausting.

"I felt like I had to put on this performance for people and convince them that I'm a person who doesn't stutter," she said.

Chin-Davis said she leaned away from situations that would force her to reveal her true self. Things changed when she started "avoidance reduction therapy," a form of therapy that asks the patient to confront and lean into their discomfort. She said her learning was put to the test when, in 2018, she decided to direct her first feature-length film, "I Can't Sleep."

"Being put into this kind of leadership role as a director, I had to use my voice more," she said. "It definitely brought up my stuff around it."

Chin-Davis said her micro-budget, self-financed movie proved to be a life-changing experience for her.

"Everything that I said, I would always ask myself, 'Is it worth saying? Should I say this?' And yet it was like, 'I am directing it and I wrote it, and so I need to say it.' I really put it on myself to say what I was thinking," said Chin-Davis of the directing process for "I Can't Sleep." "That wasn't always easy. And sometimes you get pushback."

Things were tough on the film set. Chin-Davis said she had to replace her crew after they acted disrespectfully. But she found a new crew and completed the production process. Her movie came out in 2020.

"I remember feeling very nervous and scared. People were yelling at me. And yet I just said what I had to say, stutter or not," Chin-Davis said. "I felt good about the decision afterwards. I was proud of myself that I did speak up and I did put my foot down verbally and I guess metaphorically."

Although Chin-Davis's first film didn't include any stuttering characters, she said it does have parallels to her own life, in that it tells the story of a young woman battling supernatural forces while trying to get a creative project finished.

"She is going through this process of feeling insecure about her ability to connect with people and have a message that resonates with them," Chin-Davis said. "But she does feel compelled to share it anyway."

Chin-Davis tackled the subject of stuttering head-on in a humorous video she made with longtime friend Nina G. It pokes fun at the way ignorant fluent people love to dispense advice to people who stutter. The two-minute piece, which has garnered almost 50,000 views on YouTube, toggles between the two artists as they say things like, "I used to stutter, too. But then I grew out of it. Thank God," and "Have you ever considered eating a live canary?"

Chin-Davis says she likes using her art to challenge people's assumptions. "It's kind of our job as artists who stutter to really put our voices out there and define things ourselves," she said.

Chin-Davis said people who stutter are still underrepresented in movies and TV, though she thinks Leonardo DiCaprio did a decent job playing a character with an occasional stutter in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

She particularly likes the fact that Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film didn’t make a big deal of the character’s stutter.

"I want characters who stutter just to be there, just to be on the screen," she said. "It's not about the fact that they stutter. In fact, maybe nobody mentions it, even. It's just an accepted thing."

San Francisco's first-ever Stuttering Awareness Week runs through May 14, 2022.

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