For a group of individuals who struggle with speaking, the participants of Stutter Social meetings love to chat.
The three-to-four-times weekly Internet sessions bring together people with the speech disorder from as far as Australia, India, New Zealand and Croatia. Daniele Rossi, a Toronto illustrative designer who co-founded the group this past summer, says there's rarely a lull in conversation.
"It's one big support group," says Mr. Rossi, 38, noting that many of his fellow stutterers tend to avoid social situations where they risk stammering. Over the years, he's developed tricks to hide his stutter, like avoiding certain words or ordering items at restaurants that are easier to say. "Growing up stuttering, you feel that you're the only one in the world."
But on Stutter Social, where they swap stories, experiences and coping techniques, people who stammer are finding reassurance that they're not alone.
Stuttering can be an isolating condition. In many parts of the world, including in Canada, in-person support groups are hard to find, says Mr. Rossi, who is also a board member of the Canadian Stuttering Association. Some stats suggest roughly one per cent of the adult population stutters. Yet it can be challenging rounding up enough people with the condition to assemble regular, engaging face-to-face meetings, he says, and even then, some are reluctant to participate in a live group. That's why after Mr. Rossi met Los Angeles resident David Resnick at a stuttering conference in Texas this past summer, the two decided to create a forum, using the free video conferencing medium Google+ Hangout, for people to meet and chat remotely.
Although Google+, which launched last year, has so far failed to match the popularity of rival social-networking site Facebook, its Hangout has proved to be a useful tool for this niche group.
Stutter Social isn't speech therapy. Rather, Mr. Rossi likens the sessions to informal gatherings around a water cooler or at a neighbourhood bar. During a typical Hangout (scheduled times are posted on Stutter Social's website), an official Stutter Social host mediates the chat for roughly two hours, although some sessions have been known to go on for nearly double that length. Sometimes, the host will initiate the discussion with a stuttering-related topic, like, "What is your earliest stuttering memory?" or "What advice would you give to a child who stutters?" But for the most part, it's simply a place to meet others who share similar experiences.
"You're meeting stutterers who are successful, who've gotten married … people who are cool, who are old, young," Mr. Rossi says, explaining that because stuttering is often misconstrued as a sign of nervousness or weakness, it can be encouraging to get to know others who thrive in spite of their speech issues.
Mr. Rossi says many have become regulars. One man in Croatia even sets his alarm for 3 a.m. to make sure he logs on in time. "It's a great feeling to know that Stutter Social is so important to someone that they're willing go to that length to join us," Mr. Rossi says.
Hangouts allows up to 10 people to interact at a time. But as people log on and off, anywhere between six and 15 people may participate during a typical Stutter Social session.
Carolina Ayala, 33, of Ajax, Ont., says the Hangout gives her a morale boost whenever she's feeling down. Last week, for example, she joined a session to vent her frustration, after she was laughed at by students while giving an anti-bullying speech at a school.
"It is hard when people are, like, laughing and you're trying to talk about your personal experiences," Ms. Ayala says. "I felt like I'm 9 and I'm being bullied all over again."
The people she found on Stutter Social understood.
"It helps to have a support," she says, adding that they encouraged her to continue giving such speeches.
For Jen from Kingston, Ont., who requested that her last name not be revealed, Stutter Social has brought her one step closer to accepting her speech impediment.
The 20-something says she has spent her whole life trying to hide her stutter. (To the casual listener, her stutter is imperceptible, but she says it tends to occur more when speaking with those closest to her.)
"Before, if I ever met someone who stuttered in person, I would try to get away from them as fast as I could because it just made me so uncomfortable," she says. "I would hear them talking and wonder if that's how I sounded."
But after meeting others online every few weeks, she says her attitude has changed as she's met many individuals who defy common stereotypes. Eventually, she hopes to be able to quit feeling shame and intense embarrassment whenever she stutters, but admits she has a long way to go.
At this point, attending an in-person support group in her own community would be out of the question, since she would find it "devastating" to be identified as someone who stutters, Jen says.
"For me, I guess this [online forum]is a replacement for that. It allows me to still keep talking about stuttering and talk with other people who stutter and not feel alone."