A Waterbury-Based Speech Pathologist Launched the Viral 'I'm Worth Listening To' Campaign | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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A Waterbury-Based Speech Pathologist Launched the Viral 'I'm Worth Listening To' Campaign


Published June 19, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 19, 2024 at 10:58 a.m.

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Danra Kazenski

"Hi, my name is Ronan," the boy wearing a tie-dye sweatshirt in an online video says slowly. "I'm a person who stutters, and I'm worth listening to."

The next video under the hashtag #normalizestutteringchallenge on Instagram features a middle-aged British man standing in front of a tree.

"Hi! I'm Paul," the smiling man says. "I stutter. And I'm worth listening to."

A few hundred videos later is Ana Hernandez, in Chicago: "Hola, soy Ana," she says in Spanish. "Si tartamudeas, te escucho."

Translation: If you stutter, I hear you.

The videos — from countries as distant as Argentina and Ireland — can all be traced back to Vermont, or more specifically, to the Waterbury home of Danra Kazenski. She's a clinical associate professor at the University of Vermont and a speech-language pathologist who specializes in stuttering.

Motivated to do something to help her clients, many of whom have been bullied and faced prejudice, Kazenski launched a social media campaign in March, shortly after former president Donald Trump openly mocked President Joe Biden for his stutter. She encouraged people with the speech disorder to record short videos of themselves saying a variation of "I'm worth listening to," and for allies to record themselves saying "If you stutter, I'm listening."

The challenge landed at the right moment, leading to more than 300 posts that have drawn hundreds of thousands of views from around the world. One video that stuttering advocate and makeup artist Caitlyn Cohen posted of herself saying "I stutter, and I'm worth listening to" (with an added "OK, bye!" at the end) has been viewed 52,000 times.

The campaign is the most recent project of a speech pathologist who has dedicated her life to shifting public discourse around the disorder and empowering youths and adults who stutter.

"Danra is not a person who stutters herself, and somehow that makes it all the more wonderful that she does this work, because she has so much empathy," said Barry Guitar, a professor emeritus at UVM who taught Kazenski. "She just throws herself into it wholeheartedly."

In Vermont, roughly 6,000 people stutter, not because they are nervous or unintelligent but because they have a complex speech disorder. The specific cause is unknown. However, most experts agree that stuttering has a neurological basis, affecting areas of the brain that control how speech and language are processed. Globally, the disorder affects more than 81 million people.

Stuttering can have a profound impact on those afflicted. Some change the way they talk and the words they use to avoid stuttering in public — for example, by not ordering food that they prefer because doing so may cause them to stutter. Others might not pursue certain careers.

Kazenski became interested in stuttering as a UVM grad student in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. She decided to become a speech pathologist, working directly with clients who stutter.

For the past 18 years, Kazenski has helped hundreds of youths, families and adults, gaining national acclaim for her work. She runs three stutter support groups and is the founder and cochair of the Vermont chapter of the National Stuttering Association. The national group named her the best chapter leader in 2018.

"Usually, people who are coming in for a speech problem don't enjoy going to therapy," Guitar said. "But with Danra, the kids are clearly having a lot of fun."

Kazenski has become attuned to the emotional and social impact stuttering can have on people. She recalled one client who recounted how his father would punch him in the head every time he stuttered. Another client had been banned from a local coffee shop because staff assumed he was mentally ill. Numerous clients said they were hesitant to cross the Canadian border — officials would think they were nervous and give them a hard time.

"I have 18 years of hearing stories like these," Kazenski said. "It's enough to drive you mad."

For years, President Biden has spoken openly about his stutter, calling it a "debilitating situation." He's offered public support to people who stutter, including a notable interaction with a young supporter during the 2020 campaign.

The issue resurfaced earlier this year, when Trump mocked Biden's speech disability at two different rallies.

Kazenski was thrilled that Biden defended people who stutter. But she said some of his rhetoric about the condition has been misleading. The president claims to have "overcome" his stutter, while Kazenski clarifies that it's not something one can simply "fix" through hard work. That misconception can lead some to assume people aren't working hard enough to "rid" themselves of their stutter. Treatment can help manage the severity of the speech disorder, but there is no known cure.

Kazenski says all of her clients' struggles have moved her. But what ultimately motivated her to create the challenge was the suicide of 12-year-old Ryan Fortin in 2020. She had worked with Ryan, who lived in Milton, for seven years before his death, though she wasn't seeing him when he died.

"I don't even have the words for how much we love Danra," said Emily Hackett-Fiske, Ryan's mother. "Ryan wholeheartedly trusted her."

According to Hackett-Fiske, Ryan was an "old soul," who could make both children and adults laugh with ease. Ryan started stuttering when he was 3 years old and at 5 started working with Kazenski.

"As far as we know, Ryan's friends just accepted him as Ryan," Hackett-Fiske said. "But Ryan also would not talk unless you really got to know him. That hesitation — because he stuttered — really impacted him. There was always a part of him that held back."

Why the youth took his life remains a mystery.

"Could [his stuttering] have been a factor? Absolutely," Hackett-Fiske said. "Was it the factor? I don't have an answer. There were no signs."

Three and a half years after Fortin's funeral, his story was published in a March 2024 edition of People magazine, renewing Kazenski's grief.

As it coincided with Trump's most recent bullying, "I couldn't just sit there and do nothing," she said.

So Kazenski rang up her colleagues and pitched the Normalize Stuttering Challenge. They loved the idea and were the first participants when Kazenski launched the challenge in March. It quickly gained momentum on social media. Videos on Instagram and TikTok poured in from all over the world.

"I couldn't stop crying," Kazenski said of the bravery she saw.

Izzy Moffroid, who completed her master's degree in communication sciences and disorders at UVM this spring — and who stutters herself — found the challenge empowering.

"I was thinking of myself as a fifth grader and how ashamed I was at that age because of the way I spoke," Moffroid said. "The week the challenge launched was a magical week of positivity for people who stutter around the world."

Around the same time, Kazenski saw renewed interest in her online store, which she opened three years ago to sell merchandise that promotes stuttering awareness. (One T-shirt declares the wearer a "proud stutterer.") A portion of the funds raised are donated to the National Stuttering Association in Ryan Fortin's name.

Kazenski is looking for other ways to be supportive. Last month, she got approval to put up lights in the Waterbury Roundabout in honor of National Stuttering Awareness Week. And she has been busy helping to organize the National Stuttering Association conference, which is scheduled for July in St. Louis, Mo.

"I won't stop until it is as common to say that 'I stutter' as it is to say your pronouns," Kazenski said.

Kazenski checks for new challenge videos regularly. While the pace of new posts has dropped off in recent weeks, watching them still moves her deeply. She hears a chorus of people, united in their affirmation: I hear you, I hear you, I hear you.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Strength in Stuttering | A Waterbury-based speech pathologist launched the viral "I'm worth listening to" campaign"

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