Florida teen uses stutter to spread message of diversity, acceptance

17-year-old has struggled with stuttering since he was 3 years
Posted at 6:27 PM, Nov 03, 2021

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — When you go to the same small school with the same crowd for most of your life, by senior year it's safe to say most students have found their voice and aren’t afraid to use it.

Sean Emmons, a senior at the Academy of the Lakes in Pasco County near Tampa, is no exception.

But for this political buff on the school's debate team, using his voice was never the problem.

It was accepting his voice and the stutter along with it that has been the challenge for him as long as this 17-year-old can remember.

"It means everything and nothing at the same time," Sean explained when asked what his stutter meant to him.

"I would get visibly frustrated when I couldn't say what I wanted to say," he recently told Reporter Katie LaGrone.

The way Sean tells it, his stutter first became noticeable to his parents around 3 or 4 years old.

By third grade, he was in speech therapy but got frustrated and quit two years later.

At the time, Sean was convinced his stutter would go away on its own.

The awkward years of middle school became more awkward for a boy with a moderate to severe stutter that his classmates just couldn’t understand.

"It was rough," he described. "They were like, 'I don't know what to do with you because you're very different in a number of ways.'"

During the summer after eighter grade, when most young teens aren't even close to figuring out who they are, Sean realized it was time he accepted who he was never going to be.

"I realized no, it’s not just going to go away, and it's going to be here and be as bad as it is for as long as I choose not to do anything about it," he explained.

So, back came speech therapy and a whole new outlook. Instead of hating his stutter, Sean made the decision to own it and embrace the voice that, for years he couldn't stand, as the voice that makes him now stand out and recently stand up.

On Oct. 22, International Stuttering Awareness Day, Sean stood before about 150 classmates, teachers and parents to deliver a senior class speech in a way only he could.

"I spent most of my time wishing my stutter would magically disappear," he told the audience. "I treated it like a disease. With the help of my parents, my psychologist and my speech therapist, I finally accepted my stutter as a part of who I am. It is our differences that define us, not our similarities."

By the time Sean ended his speech, there wasn't a dry eye in the school gymnasium.

Mom and dad heard Sean's words for the first time when everyone else did too. Proud doesn't even begin to describe it.

"Oh man, yea I'm proud of that kid every day, but yeah, that was a proud day. That was a massively proud day," said his mom, Jessica Hawk-Tillman.

His dad, James Emmons, has replayed Sean's speech on YouTube about a dozen times and still gets emotional.

"Knowing all he went through, to see him get through it, was awesome. It was perfect," he said adding Sean's words resonate beyond his school campus.

"It's important if someone can see him accept himself for who he is and what he's gone through and be true to themselves. It's a great lesson for anyone who wants to prejudge things that are different," Emmons said.

Leaving your parents speechless is one thing, but Sean's speed had a lasting impact on his teachers and classmates.

"This is a child with a severe stutter, yet he doesn't stop sharing and using his voice," said Kim Vreeland, Sean's English teacher who also helped guide him through the process of writing his senior speech. "As I watched him, I was like, 'Come on buddy. You got this. You can do this,' and it was beautiful."

"I loved the way he stayed positive about it. It wasn't a sob story. It was a story about perseverance," said friend and classmate Anisa Nanavati.

"He really showed us with his speech. Sometimes you have to take on what life gives you," friend Elise Faith added.

Next year Sean, an AP student, will take on college with his sights set on statistics and data science, leaving behind a journey that took him years to fully express into words he could finally accept.

"Whoever this story impacts, that's fantastic. But the most important part of it to me is that this was the final piece of the puzzle to putting it to rest for myself," Sean said.

Quick facts about stuttering:

  • Stuttering usually begins in childhood, between 2 and 5 years old
  • Stuttering is a communication disorder involving disruptions in a person’s speech
  • Stuttering is more common among males than females
  • Stuttering is often genetic
  • It’s estimated about 1% of the world’s population stutters and about 5% of children go through a period of stuttering

Source: National Stuttering Association.