We sat down with longstanding Patron of the BSA, Baroness Janet Whitaker, to talk about growing up with a stammer, how it has affected her professional life, and how the Alexander Technique helped her get through difficult parliamentary speeches.
Q: How old were you when you first realised you spoke differently?
I began to stammer at the age of three. When my brother was born my mother was in hospital for two weeks, so I was sent to be looked after by some old friends. They were nice people but I’m told that when I came home I started stammering.
My parents did all sorts of things, they took me to speech therapies, psychotherapies – all of which I found interesting but it didn’t make a blind bit of difference. I couldn’t read at all at school and it stopped me doing acting, so I had to be the producer of plays instead. It was a constraint. One sort of put up with it. But all the time it was a cause of grief, sadness and worry. My father stammered too but his was barely noticeable – he was a university lecturer but it wasn’t a nuisance to him.
Q: Tell us how your stammer has affected you in your working life, including in Parliament.
My stammer had largely gone away at university. After graduating, I worked in America and then for a publisher in London and didn’t have any problems.
Before I started in the House of Lords, I was a magistrate. To begin with, people there used to say, "You’re awfully nervous aren’t you." "No, I’m not nervous," I said, "I’ve got a stammer." It wasn’t particularly supportive.
I had to do a big, long speech at the UN and I thought, I really might not be able to do this.
When I do occasionally block I notice some people will look away or fidget; one always thinks it’s because they’re hostile but I think it’s because they’re embarrassed, actually.
I also worked in the civil service. On one occasion I had a big, long speech at the UN and I was representing the United Kingdom. I had to clear it with all the departments concerned, so every word had been approved; I couldn’t switch words and I thought, I really might not be able to do this. I went to my undersecretary and said I didn’t want to do it, but he said it’s got to be a woman, because it was an issue regarding women, so that was that. I didn’t have much time so I thought, I’ll have to do something about this. I rang up the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists and asked if there was anyone who could give me some rapid help. They suggested the wonderful therapist Renee Byrne (a notable therapist who has since passed away). I was mightily relieved when it was over.
I retired at 60, as was the mandatory retirement age then, and then was persuaded, reluctantly, to come to the House of Lords. The reluctance was two-fold, partly because I thought, what am I doing with a stammer in this place? And also because I’d been retired for four years and I was enjoying saying what I thought – I was giving up freedom. But my husband talked me into it.
Q: Is your stammer something you have tried to hide or are you open about it?
I’m part of an all-party group on speech, language and communication. If I’m asking a question or supporting an amendment on a piece of legislation, I will start by saying, "As a stammerer…" I think it’s really important to keep on saying it. I say it to friends too. The really annoying thing is when people finish your sentences, so I ask them not to.
Q: What have you found has helped you in your professional life?
Delivering speeches was more or less OK because I was doing all sorts of exercises. They’re quite tedious and after a while I got bored and then occasionally the stammer would return.
I went to a physiotherapist for a pain in my shoulder, and the physiotherapist said, "I can help but it will come back again unless you do something about your posture. Try the Alexander Technique.” So I went along to an Alexander Technique teacher my daughter used. My teacher helps lots of actors to work on their voices. Alexander himself was an actor who lost his voice and that’s why he developed the technique. I noticed by accident that when I had a lesson in it the day before, I didn’t stammer. And when I didn’t have a lesson, I was much more likely to stammer on a speech – even if I rehearsed it over and over.
It’s a way of re-aligning your joints to take pressure off. It frees the airwaves up and allows you to drop things associated with a stammer, like tension. It really has a marked effect on my fluency; it’s worth trying. The medical practice is always dubious about alternatives and don’t prescribe the Alexander Technique. It’s unfortunate it has to be private.
Q: Has your stammer lessened or does it come and go still?
To some extent it comes and goes. The therapy I had before I started on Alexander Technique lessons helped but there wasn’t always time to practise the exercises. It’s there as a living thing because it makes your delivery less expressive.
When I was in the civil service I had to do a lot of public speaking. I suppose it’s the expectations that make it worse. It’s slightly more confrontational because if you speak as a civil servant you expect people to ask you hostile questions. But the Alexander Technique has enabled me not to worry about it so much.
Q: You worked as a magistrate until 2001 – we know a disproportionate amount of men in the justice system have speech and language problems. How can the legal system and society go about addressing that issue?
It’s part of a larger problem. There’s a huge level of illiteracy and mental health problems. Many have problems coping with ordinary life; often they have chaotic backgrounds. Some have never had ways to enable them to make their stammer less important and more adaptable, and it’s one of the things which can induce you to get very angry. If a young man who can’t manage their anger then it’s going to add to the frustration.
Q: You’ve also been involved with the Employers Stammering Network. The phrase ‘Good communication skills’ comes up a lot when applying for jobs. What are good communication skills to you?
Communication is infinitely more than talking fluently. One of the most important things is listening. It’s also about personality – not so much on the way they speak, it’s the way they look, it’s what kind of an attitude they have, what their opinions are. It’s helpful to be in a framework where you can say what you really feel. It’s inhibiting if you have to be tactical and diplomatic. But it’s better if you can say things from the heart.
Stammering might loom large to you but not to others and people should take heart from that.
I went to one seminar and there was a person giving a presentation who had a really severe stammer and kept on through it. I really admired him because what he had to say was interesting. There’s no point concentrating on the way he said it.
I really feel jealous of those people who can just read something out. They don’t always read it well, mind you.
Q: Would you have any advice for anyone about to enter the job market but is worried about their speech?
There are many worse things than having a stammer. People used to make fun of those who stammer a lot. Probably on the whole that’s better now.
I don’t think my husband ever saw me as ‘a stammerer’. One pays much more attention to a stammer than others. It’s rather reassuring in a way. Stammering might loom large to you but not to others and people should take heart from that.
Read about all of our Patrons here.