On Thursday, Jan. 21, when I returned to the U.S. to visit my family from my six-month study abroad program in Costa Rica, I was detained in customs within the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport because of my stutter, a speech impediment that I have no control over.
When I was asked what country I was coming from, I had stuttered on “Costa Rica.” When I was pulled aside in customs, one of the first questions directed toward me related to if there was something wrong with me. I explained to the staffer that I had a speech impediment and that I stuttered.
Although I explained my disability, I continued to be questioned as well as called dishonest. I was even questioned about having a stutter because the staffer said that I was not stuttering when speaking with him. I was detained for what felt like an hour, and I had missed my connecting flight.
During this moment, I felt intimidated, bullied and silenced. This experience reminded me of when I was bullied growing up because of my stutter. That day, I felt silenced but not broken.
After the event took place, I immediately spoke with the supervisor of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Atlanta. The supervisor gave me a verbal apology and I was told that she would speak to the customs staff about proper conduct. I was not asking for anyone to be fired and I was not seeking money. I simply wanted an apology from the staff member involved in the incident. I encouraged the customs staff members to be more educated about stuttering awareness for the next time they encounter someone with a stutter, especially because there will be two stutter conferences held in Atlanta this year, in which many stutterers will be coming from all over the world.
During this challenging time, I was thankful to have received support from SAY The Stuttering Association for the Young, Nina G Comedian, The Stuttering Foundation of America, StutterTalk, The National Stuttering Association, as well as other members of the stutter and non stutter communities.
Social Media Movement
I, along with other supporters, have helped to launch a social media movement in support of my experience. The hashtag #DDDetainedInAtlanta sparked media attention as well as created awareness internationally and nationally. The hashtag was not only used to urge the employees of the airport to be more educated on stuttering awareness, it helped bring attention to the situation. Social media played a significant role and was used as a catalyst for change.
What Happens Now
Since the incident, I have been featured on a stutter podcast called StutterTalk, I have written a blog for SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young, was featured on several blogs written by Nina G Comedian, and was featured in an article in The Mighty. In addition, I have partnered with The Stuttering Foundation of America, where we have collaborated together in order to create a travel card for stutterers that includes more information about stuttering. The National Stuttering Association has also been working diligently by reaching out to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as well as the Department of Homeland Security.
What hurts me the most is that I am not the first person who stutters, let alone the first person with a disability, who has gone through this experience. From this experience, one of the main goals that I want to achieve is to spread more stutter awareness in order for others to better understand stuttering. I believe that everyone has a voice, despite the challenges one must face. We all have something to say.