When my mother and I recently went to a local department store for a day of shopping, we were not expecting to get a lesson in ignorance.

An error had been made on my mother's shopping plate account and our first stop was the credit department. As I sat down and watched the line for the window grow, my mother, a lifelong stutterer, was explaining the problem to the service person behind the window. But all I could hear was the service person's voice: "What? Can you speak up? Say it again . . . never mind. Ask her over here."

When I got to the window, I was being asked the questions. "Now, what is your mother's name? Address? What's the problem with the account?"

The service person obviously did not know how to deal with a stutterer, and rather than admit this, she acted as if my mother were a child who couldn't put phrases together. Each question was directed at me, and the woman's eye contact with me totally excluded my mother from the conversation.

We left the department store, forgetting about shopping, since my mother was in tears, feeling "very stupid and wanting to die."

Stuttering is not a problem that can be dealt with easily -- although it can be dealt with successfully. It can take years for a stutterer (or stammerer, as the English call it) to overcome the impediment through speech therapy and breathing exercises, and this therapy is not always successful.

In fact, the root cause of stuttering is still unknown. Technically, stuttering is a "disorder in which the rhythmic flow of speech is disrupted by rapid-fire repetitions of sounds, prolonged vowels and complete stops." However, this definition does not mention the isolation created by the impediment that can embarrass both the speaker and the listener.

Yet any concrete definition of stuttering is relatively new. Hippocrates thought that stuttering was due to dryness of the tongue; Francis Bacon claimed it was a "refrigerated" tongue that needed to be warmed; and many people have felt that it was "just a nasty habit" that could easily be changed.

And all those people who have thought that stuttering reflects an inferior mind should look at Winston Churchill, Sir Issac Newton and Somerset Maugham -- all of whom were members of the stuttering population.

Although stuttering has been around for a long time, the public has not been properly educated in interacting with a person who has this impediment. People have been attuned to the special needs of other groups -- the blind, the deaf and the mentally and physically handicapped; yet those individuals who stutter (or have any speech impediment) have been neglected.

Perhaps it is because society doesn't see the impact of this speech disorder as being quite as serious. However, statistics show that $750 million per year is lost in earning power among persons with speech and language disorders. And when there are approximately 15 million stutterers in the world today (approximately 1 million in the United States alone), this represents a large segment of the population that is ignored.

But, of course, it is the day-to-day social impact that affects the stutterer. How would you feel if, when calling room service in a hotel, the operator thinks you are an obscene phone caller and hangs up? And then there are the times when children (or rude adults) laugh because "your voice is funny -- just like Porky Pig."

Each stutterer has a personal list of such stories. The feeling of fear and loss of control over their speech generated by these incidents is so overwhelming to a stutterer that they will try to avoid the same experience in the future. The end result is isolation and loneliness.

As with most things in life, the speech impediment is not by itself the problem; rather, the problem lies in the public's reaction to stuttering. It is not only the stutterer who is embarrassed and tired, but the listener as well. However, there are ways to be at ease with a stutterer. Among them:

Maintain eye contact.

Be patient.

No matter how great the temptation may be, do not fill in.

The service person at the department store was not ignorant by herself. She was indicative of the need for educating the public to confront and understand the problem of stuttering, not just walk away from it, laughing.