Andy Shallal: Shameless Stutterer

Andy Shallal is a man with many titles: restauranteur, artist, activist, philanthropist, community leader, just to name a few. Most people in the Washington, D.C. region know him as the proprietor of the popular restaurant/bookstore/performance venue Busboys and Poets.However, Shallal also wants people to know him as a person who stutters. In fact, he makes it a point to call attention to it when delivering speeches in front of crowds, which he does often.

“I usually ask ‘Does anyone else in the room stutter? Because I do,’” Shallal said. “I make it my mission to talk about it because I feel like if I had more people talking about it, I would have been able to deal with it sooner.”

Shallal, who struggled with stuttering from a very young age, credits Vivian Sisskin from the University of Maryland’s Department of Hearing & Speech Sciences(HESP) with teaching him to embrace stuttering and for helping him to overcome it.

 “She had me stutter more,” Shallal recalls. “She said ‘Stutter more, tell people you stutter and don’t be afraid of it. You have to start feeling comfortable with it and out yourself as a stutterer and own it essentially.’”

The strategy Sisskin uses is known as Avoidance Reduction Therapy for Stuttering (ARTS). It operates on the premise that stuttering in older childhood and adulthood is most often exacerbated by feelings of shame and efforts to hide the behavior.

“We teach clients to stop using escape behaviors,” Sisskin explained. “They stop using what we call “tricks” to avoid stuttering and they begin to stutter more openly and honestly. Once you do that, you reduce reactivity and struggle—you stutter less and less.”

When Shallal met Sisskin, he was in his mid-30s and had been through numerous types of therapies to counteract his stuttering: One therapist had him place a pencil between his lips and speak while holding it there. Another told him to imagine his audience naked to combat nervousness. Others had him do a series of breathing exercises and hum at the beginning of each sentence. Nothing helped—until Sisskin introduced him to ARTS.

“It just made sense,” Shallal said. “Stuttering is about shame and once you get over the shame, you can get over the stuttering. It’s pretty simple, but it worked.”

Although ARTS has been around for decades, Sisskin says it’s not as common as other speech therapies that deal with stuttering, partly because it involves an intense amount of counseling and requires people to confront their fears and shame in a group setting. The University of Maryland is one of only a handful of colleges and universities in the country that offers a comprehensive training in ARTS. Sisskin leads ARTS group sessionson campus weekly.

“It’s pretty typical that people find this therapy because they’re looking for something that’s more acceptance-oriented,” Sisskin said. “They’re tired of hiding, they’re tired of struggling, of trying to be covert.”

For Shallal, his struggles with stuttering gradually decreased over a period of several years after being introduced to ARTS. These days, few people would likely notice any issues with his speech, although he continues to be up-front about it. 

“Still today when I get up to speak in front of a group, I will stutter,” Shallal said. “I’m just less upset about it.”

On Saturday, May 20th, Shallal stood in front of a crowd of several hundred people inside the University of Maryland Memorial Chapel to address the graduates from the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences—at the request of Sisskin. 

“Let me begin by saying that being a stutterer makes me especially nervous to be surrounded by speech therapists,” Shallal jokingly told the crowd.

Shallal called serving as the HESP commencement speaker a “full circle moment.” Today, in addition to his numerous other responsibilities, he considers himself an advocate for people who stutter and volunteers for organizations like the Stuttering Association for the Young. He hopes to inspire others who struggle with stuttering to discover what took him decades to figure out:  

“Growing up, (stuttering) was kind of shameful and no one talked about it,” he said. “But knowing I was not alone, that there were other people who stutter and are adults and are successful, made all the difference. It’s kind of like being left-handed. Big deal.”

Andy Shallal, D.C.-area entrepreneur, activist and artist