Before 2020, Ryleigh Spets used TikTok mainly to make fun lip sync videos or try out the newest internet trends. She didn’t talk much about her stutter, and she certainly wasn’t planning to become an advocate for people who stutter. But when she noticed people disparaging presidential candidate Joe Biden for the way he spoke, she could no longer stay silent.
“They were saying he has a degenerative brain disease,” Ryleigh, who prefers to go by her first name, said. “I was like, are you kidding me?”
Critics speculated that Biden’s occasionally stalled speech was indicative of memory loss or dementia, and mocked his seeming inability to answer “basic” questions. Stutterers, however, recognized his pauses as “blocks,” a common form of stuttering. Ryleigh, who had first learned that Biden was a stutterer as a 7-year-old in speech therapy, was horrified by the suggestion that his speech impediment should disqualify him from becoming president. To her, it was offensive to the entire stuttering community.
“If you say bad things about someone’s disability, then you’re saying bad things about everybody else’s,” she said.
Ryleigh posted a video to her then-6,000 fans, venting her frustrations and breaking down in tears. “I was saying how having a disability is really hard, especially when millions of people are bashing this disability and saying untrue things about it,” she said. She had hoped some people would listen to her and open their minds, but never anticipated that the video would propel her to influencer status. “I gained 150,000 followers literally overnight,” she said.
Ryleigh is part of a recent wave of social media influencers who stutter. These young women are charming, stylish, and gorgeous—as influencers tend to be—and are doing something pretty much unheard of until now: posting authentic, unedited videos of themselves stuttering. Many of these creators also use their platforms to answer viewers’ questions about stuttering. For example, Caitlyn Cohen has posted hundreds of videos answering questions like, “Do you like when people help you finish your sentence if you’re stuttering?” and “Do you like when people compliment you on your stuttering getting better?”—both of which are strong nos for her.
“I think stuttering is one of the disabilities that’s made fun of most, in the media and in real life, because a lot of people don’t know much about it,” said Ryleigh.
@rydawgswizzle THIS IS PATRONIZING! Don’t interrupt us, and don’t assume you know what’s best for us. Just… don’t say anything and listen… #stutter #stutterer ♬ original sound – Ry
She noted that non-stutterers often fail to realize that her stutter is a disability, instead assuming that it’s a symptom of some other issue. She recalls times when she’s been asked whether she has social anxiety, despite being a “very social person,” or has been initially refused service because the bartender thought her stutter was an indication that she was “either drunk or underage.” Her videos help to destigmatize and normalize stuttering, so that non-stutterers understand what it is and can respond respectfully when they encounter it.
Mainstream acceptance often begins with representation, which has long been an issue for people who stutter. Few books and movies feature characters who stutter, and those who do are either bullied (like Bill from It) or “recover” from their stutters (like King George VI in The King’s Speech). It’s even harder to find real-life representation of stutterers: as writer and stutterer Sophia Stewart points out, “I knew only characters who stuttered, not people.”
Even celebrities who stutter, such as Emily Blunt or James Earl Jones, are generally people who have “outgrown” their stutters, and whose real-time speech disfluencies we never actually get to witness. This lack of representation is even worse for women and girls who stutter, in part because women are four times less likely to stutter than men.
YouTuber Matice Ahnjamine is another influencer trying to remedy this representation problem. Ahnjamine didn’t meet anyone else who stuttered until she was seventeen: “Growing up, I never knew anyone else who talked like me,” she said. In 2017, Ahnjamine started a YouTube channel where she answers questions and shares personal stories about her stutter.
“My main goal in starting the channel was to encourage other people who stutter,” she said. “My channel was to be like a friend for [them].”
Like Ryleigh, Ahnjamine wanted to educate people on the realities of stuttering and combat “disability drift,” when people assume that a person with one disability has other, unrelated disabilities as well. For example, stutterers are more likely to be perceived as less competent in several areas, including intelligence, articulateness, and social skills.
“I realized that people had misconceptions about stuttering,” said Ahnjamine. “Some people thought that it meant that you weren’t smart, some people would tell me to slow down…I realized that a lot of people who don’t stutter just don’t understand it.”
Ahnjamine uses her YouTube channel to connect with other stutterers and often posts videos about navigating dating, work, and daily life with a stutter. She also tries out treatments that viewers recommend in the comments, including CBD oil and speech therapy. Outlets for stutterers to discuss treatment options tend to be scarce, making Ahnjamine’s channel an especially valuable resource.
“For me, it was to explore these things for the followers and let them know my experience and give a review on it, because they wanted to try it themselves,” she said.
Some of these influencers post videos of themselves doing something that scares them, in order to empower other stutterers to do the same. For example, influencer @mimidarlingbeauty makes TikToks of herself doing things like public speaking, leaving voicemails, and introducing her stutter before talking. Similarly, Ahnjamine made a video in which she challenged herself to make phone calls, something she’d previously relied on her mother to do.
“That really stressed me out…but now I make all of my phone calls myself,” she said. “I try to encourage other people [who stutter] to own it and not to let their fear hold them back.”
These influencers can play a big role in helping girls and young women see their stutter as something to be celebrated, rather than to be ashamed of. A fan commented on one of Cohen’s videos, “We love your stutter! It makes you unique…wouldn’t change it for the world.” Another fan commented on an @mimidarlingbeauty video, “I use to wish for a ‘cure’ but now I’ve accepted it thanks to you.”
Still, people who stutter can face a lot of discrimination and hardship. To help, Ahnjamine runs the Stutter Bae scholarship, which offers some financial support for high school and college students who stutter. Ahnjamine was inspired by her own post-grad experience: “After I graduated college, it took me three years to get a job and within that time I had student loans piling up,” she explained. “I had no way to pay them, I had no job, no money. It caused a lot of stress for me, and so to alleviate that stress for other students who stutter, I created the scholarship.”
Fortunately, stuttering is slowly but surely becoming destigmatized, in part due to social media representation. Ryleigh said she’s recently noticed social media users encouraging others to stop using the word “stutter” in a negative way. “People on TikTok are like, ‘Hey, don’t say the phrase ‘Did I stutter?,’ use a different phrase,” she said. “It’s heartwarming.”
Ahnjamine has also observed a positive shift in the way people perceive and interact with stutterers. She’s spent the past few months job hunting and has been surprised by her success. “I had five interviews in one week…and last week, I got multiple offers,” she said. “That’s really exciting because 10 years ago, I couldn’t even get one job in three years.” She accepted one of the offers and will be taking on a leadership role in her new job, something she previously would have thought impossible.
“Now I really feel like there’s nothing I can’t do,” she said.