A Stutter in Class

October 18, 2011

A newspaper recently ran an article on a stuttering student who says he was told by his professor to ask his questions after class, rather than during it. And it wasn't just any newspaper, but The New York Times, so the story immediately went viral.

The professor says she has been misunderstood and that she had no intention of stopping the student from speaking -- but that she was concerned about how much the student was asking questions, and that she also had an obligation to other students in the class. "He seemed to want to answer every question," she told the Times in a subsequent article.

While the County College of Morris continues to field -- and largely deflect -- questions about exactly what happened, a larger question has emerged: How should instructors respond when a student has a speech impairment? And a related question has emerged as well: Is anyone training professors on how to deal with such situations?

It is a teacher’s right to manage the classroom and make sure that all students receive the benefit of education, said Ann Franke, attorney and president of Wise Results LLC, who regularly works with universities on legal issues.

A speech disorder may or may not rise to the level of disability, she said, but sometimes just a private conversation can help resolve the matter.

"A good practice is to have the student disabilities support office involved, and to structure accommodation if a student needs it," Franke said. "Disputes are best resolved through conversations. Often, problems can be addressed within the department before they become a matter of public display."

Doing so is much more important now because in the era of the 24/7 news cycle, the spotlight could be thrown on one incident in a short amount of time, like the unwanted attention the County College of Morris has found itself in since the story broke.

"Someone can receive a lot of positive or negative publicity in a very short period," she said. In the New Jersey case, the instructor, Elizabeth Snyder, told the Times that she was concerned about her safety because she had received "vile" and "hateful" e-mails after the article was published.

Gregory F. Scholtz, director at the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at American Association of University Professors, said administrators might find themselves in a bind when dealing with students who complain of unfair treatment.

"Our recommended procedures emphasize that those dealing with students complaints against professors should encourage students to discuss their concerns first with the instructor," Scholtz said.

Just as it is the responsibility of teachers to demonstrate respect for students, they also have a large leeway on how to teach their classes under professional standards, he said.

But adjunct faculty members, like Snyder, remain vulnerable to adverse action, he said. "They have fewer rights, and in many instances, one alleged misstep might lead to them not being offered any more teaching assignments," Scholtz said.

While it would be terrible if a student was being picked on because of his stutter, it would be unfair too if somebody is talkative and taking up too much class time, said Connie Dugan, a speech-language pathologist who has worked with students with speech disorders at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"So much of this is on an individual basis. Some students would be offended if they had any rules changed for them, others might be able to do their best if they had accommodations," she said.

Another expert, Jane Fraser of the Stuttering Foundation, said it would have been ideal for the professor to have pulled this student aside and have a discussion on what they could accomplish together. "We don’t know what happened in this case," Fraser said. "But talking openly about stuttering is an important thing, because talking openly opens the door to discussions about any problems the student might be having."

She added that it is just as important for the person who has the disability to take turns and listen to others just as he would expect others to listen to him.

Fraser said she often hears from adults who tell her that school was a nightmare for them because of stuttering issues.

Discussions are a good tool for education, experts say. Sometimes, a mainstream movie or book can work to change the public perception of a disability. "The King’s Speech, It was wonderful information for the public,” Dugan said.

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