Imagine this: You're heading home from an international trip, and you get questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection because authorities are unfamiliar with your disability. For one Kalamazoo College student, this was her story earlier this year. However, now the incident has inspired a new effort at creating understanding between authorities and those who stutter.
Kylah Simmons is a junior at Kalamazoo College. She studies psychology and media, and she also stutters. She says during a normal day, that doesn’t matter. In fact, she embraces the disability.
But when she was returning from a study abroad trip in January, and was passing through U.S. Customs at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, her disability became a major issue.
She talked over Skype from Costa Rica.
"So when I was coming through the Atlanta International Airport, they asked me what country where I was coming from," she says. "And I stuttered on Costa Rica. Because it’s always been a hard thing for me to say."
Simmons says after she stuttered, she was ushered into another room with a new staff member. Simmons says she explained her disability, but this new staff member seemingly didn’t understand why she was stuttering -- or even what stuttering was.
"He asked if there was something wrong with me," Simmons says. "And so I had explained to him that I had a speech impediment and that I stuttered. And after I explained my speech impediment, he kept on asking me questions."
Simmons says the questions started simply. Where was she going? What did she study? But Simmons says it all made her nervous, which only made the stutter worse. It all added up to a vicious circle of nerves and stuttering and more nerves and more stuttering.
"My heart was racing," she explains. "I was really confused because they didn’t tell me what was happening. I couldn’t think straight. I felt like I was trapped, because no matter how much I told them that I had a speech impediment, it just felt like he didn’t want to believe me."
Eventually, after a missed flight and what Simmons says felt like an hour, the authorities let her go. But the experience stuck with her. She was mad – that a customs agent didn’t believe her, and accused her of lying about a disability like her stutter. So Simmons did something about it.
She wrote about her experience in a blog for The Huffington Post. And she contacted stuttering organizations across the country, telling them that this behavior needed to be changed.
Jane Fraser, the president of the Stuttering Foundation of America, says these kinds of experiences aren’t unique for those who stutter.
"Stuttering is a communication disorder," she says. "70 million people stutter, and stress can exacerbate this condition."
Fraser says a non-stutterer won’t suddenly start stuttering because of stress. But throw someone who stutters into an intense situation, she says, and suddenly that stutter gets a lot worse. Fraser has heard similar cases before – people getting pulled over by police, then getting confronted with an officer who doesn’t understand their disability.
"But it’s not been anything as pressing as this," Fraser says. "We heard from Kylah that she had been stopped. And this was a very embarrassing situation to her."
So Fraser and Simmons talked. They decided to work together on a new project that would help to make these situations – conflicts with authorities revolving around a stutter -- disappear. The way to do that? Simmons designed an “I Stutter card.”
It explains right up front: I am a person who stutters. Here is what stuttering is. Fraser says the idea is that when someone is confronted with authority, they don’t need to get overwhelmed with the prospect of talking and explaining their disability. Instead, just take out the card.
"And what a difference that makes!" Fraser says. "And I think this makes a difference for the TSA staff. That puts them at ease, as well. Rather than their hackles being up, that this person is guilty. They understand right away, too."
Simmons says this entire experience has opened her eyes to parts of the world that still aren’t quite as educated or accepting of her own disability. But she says she’s happy it’s happened.
"Because a lot of times, people who stutter -- they don’t feel like they have a voice," Simmons says. "So when I told my story, they felt courage and there was a need to share it."
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said he couldn’t comment directly on Simmons’ situation. But he says officials are always attempting to learn from experiences that are disruptive to passengers.
Fraser with the Stuttering Foundation says she already passed along all sorts of information on stuttering to the airport. She says they were happy to learn more.