The Impossibility of Navigating Automated Phone Systems as a Person Who Stutters

Navigating the healthcare world with both PH and a stutter is downright frustrating

Mike Naple avatar

by Mike Naple |

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I hate communicating with automated phone systems. I hate that advancing to the next stage of the process to get what I need depends on how the automated program understands the sound of my voice and the cadence of my words. I hate the way I feel when the stutter in my voice fails to make the automated voice understand my menu selections, like losing a fight in a boxing ring.

Hate might seem like a strong description for a rather mundane technology like phone automation, which is supposed to make things easier. But automated phone systems and I are like oil and water — we don’t mix. They don’t make my life easier, and they can even exacerbate my stutter.

I’ve mentioned stuttering a few times in my columns because of how it intersects with my pulmonary hypertension (PH). I count more frequent use of automated phone systems among the many challenges of my experience with this disease.

During an automated call, it can be difficult for me to respond clearly when asked for specific information like my date of birth, ZIP code, or whether I want the pulmonary or billing department at a hospital. Even my name can be difficult to say over the phone.

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Firing like pinballs

The vocal outputs one hears when I stutter are called disfluencies, defined as “a breakdown in the forward flow of speech.” These blocks in speech pattern can include the repetition of words, intense repetition of a consonant at the start of a word, prolonged pronunciation of a word, and moments when no sound is produced, among others. While these blocks happen, the synapses in my brain fire like pinballs, working in overdrive to determine the best combination of vowels and consonants to create words to verbally communicate my thoughts.

The other day, my pharmacy sent an email asking me to call them about a prescription. At the pharmacy’s recommendation, I refilled my sildenafil prescription, only to learn I’d made the request too early, and they wanted to speak with me. My fingers dialed to meet with one of my many unnamed automated nemeses. I blocked when responding to a request for my birthdate and had to provide it multiple times. When I blocked again while giving my ZIP code, I pulled the emergency rip cord and pressed zero to talk to an actual human.

Since my PH diagnosis in 2016, the amount of time I spend interacting with the automated healthcare system has only increased. The treatment plan to manage PH requires scheduling appointments, refilling prescriptions, ordering medical supplies, and communicating with my insurance company. All of these tasks require some amount of communicating via an automated phone system. Whenever possible, I opt for completing them online, so I only have to confront the automated phone villain when there’s a problem.

The stigma of stuttering

People of any age can stutter. In the United States, we’re an estimated 3 million people. My stutter is a chronic condition. It’s impossible to remember a time when I didn’t stutter. Sometimes a block can be so severe that I’ve gasped for air or felt a tightness in my chest. When this happens, it can feel similar to the shortness of breath that I experience as a symptom of PH. I try to maintain a level of awareness about the moments when stuttering can affect my breathing and oxygen levels.

Beyond the physical effects, I become frustrated and feel ashamed when I have something to say but have trouble communicating my thoughts. There is a persistent stigma around stuttering. I often think people don’t take me seriously enough, question my expertise or qualifications to do a job, or become agitated as they wait for me to complete my thoughts. I have found that I have many of these same feelings when I’m wearing my portable oxygen concentrator.

International Stuttering Awareness Day on Oct. 22 is an opportunity to push back against the ableism that many stutterers face daily, as well as the broader discrimination against disabled people. I’ve always stuttered, but I haven’t always had PH, which has led to some life changes. I’m recognizing this awareness day because while my stutter is present when I open my mouth, PH is somewhat invisible until I pop a cannula into my nose.

I’m learning to become more comfortable with using my portable oxygen concentrator in a preventive manner, rather than when I’ve already become short of breath. Just don’t ask me to talk to an automated phone system.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @mnaple.

Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


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