Blog: A little less 'suffering'
(L-R: Neha Shaji, Rob Coe and Ken Sema)
12th April 2023
Our Comms & Social Media Manager Neha Shaji talks about a segment from an upcoming interview between STAMMA and footballer Ken Sema, that resonated with her.
I knew coming into the role last month that STAMMA would be an exciting and fast paced environment, but I didn't expect to be giving an interview to The Athletic website three days into taking up the post!
Just a couple of days after starting the job, we were asked to comment on a post-match interview with the Watford midfielder Ken Sema, in which he stammered with confidence, which went viral (watch the video on Twitter). The responses from around the world were overwhelmingly positive, with several people mentioning how important the video was for their children who stammer.
In addition to being thrilled at seeing the positive responses towards Ken, we at STAMMA were also closely following the reporting surrounding the interview. Although the coverage was sympathetic, aside from a few notable exceptions Ken was almost exclusively referred to as 'suffering', 'enduring', or 'struggling through' his stammer.
Perhaps the world would be a better place for people who stammer if we had a little less "look how they suffer sufferingly through their suffering" every time someone with a stammer breathes in public.
So when we got to sit down with Ken last week at Watford FC's training ground for an interview we organised between him and Rob Coe from the Cambridge Stammering Self-help Group, I was personally curious to see what he thought about that. You'll have to wait for the full interview (which we will publish very soon!) to see what he says exactly, but as a teaser let's just say I was absolutely delighted with his response. It was along the lines of how whilst he understood and acknowledged that some may suffer or regard themselves as suffering, he had just scored a bunch of goals and played a brilliant match. Where's the suffering in that? Surely it was a victory?
And it was precisely that — relatability through difference. I'm no athlete, let alone footballer; as I told Rob and Ken prior to the interview, I barely knew where the goalposts were. But that response really resonated with me: as in, questioning why stammering is seen as inherent suffering. Ken is a chatty, sociable and friendly person. Some days his stammer affects him more than others. But it does not define him, and certainly doesn't define him as a 'sufferer'. Ken was spot on in saying that he understood why people might take that viewpoint, but that it wasn't his own. I felt the same about myself: of course, many may see their own stammer as causing themselves suffering. But if one has just given a great conference paper, or played a monumental football match, or led a spectacular conga line through the streets of Ibiza — I wouldn't want a newspaper to tell me that actually, I'm suffering and just don't know it yet.
Suffering, endurance and struggle should be understood, but not be seen as the default — because it's patronising, presumptuous and more importantly it lets society off the hook by placing blame on disfluency. If suffering is seen as innate and inherent to stammering and as such unchangeable, then fluent society will not feel the onus to change their own behaviour towards people who stammer, address their own insulting words, or improve their own listening practices.
To suffer and endure is not the centrality of stammering nor the defining characteristic of someone who stammers, but rather a result of negative societal reactions. Perhaps the world would be a better place for people who stammer if we had a little less "look how they suffer sufferingly through their suffering" every time someone with a stammer breathes in public, and a little more understanding and patience towards disfluency itself.
Rob and Ken spoke about a great many things, from second languages to fatherhood, and this was just a small part of it that really resonated with me. The full interview will be released very soon on our website, so stay tuned!
Read about our award-winning 2020 campaign Find The Right Words, where we worked with Wikipedia to change the way stammering is talked about.