22nd September 2021
Growing up in the 1950s, when stammering wasn't talked about, left Bill McMillan feeling marginalised. Here he tells us his story and highlights how we shouldn't forget to include older generations who stammer.
I am, of course, joking with that headline. The idea of putting senior citizens into a home because they stammer is ludicrous. But take away the word 'home' and it gives a different look at this, to my knowledge, seldom raised issue.
Elderly people who have stammered most of their lives — who have never had the access to help that people have today and who might have always been forced to be 'fluent', may feel the isolation and loneliness that often comes with old age more keenly because of this. Sadly, some are so used to 'keeping their heads down' to avoid embarrassment, it's possible they are too shy and sunk into themselves to seek help.
Firstly, I will bore you all with a brief story of my stammer from the grim days of the fifties up to the present, and how bizarre it is that I am the only one in my whole family — including my sons, grandsons and even relatives in Australia I've never met — who stammers.
One of my friends at school had a lisp and how I longed to have a lisp instead of a stammer when I had a bad day at school — at least he could get all his words out! When I started stammering from the age of six I felt isolated. In those days it was assumed that stammered speech indicated a 'slow' child. Probably being off school for long periods after a bad bout of rheumatic fever didn't help my feelings of being marginalised. This is starting to be a long 'poor me' article, so I'll not keep on about that.
It would have been terrific if STAMMA had been around then. My mother took me to various therapists who all, as I remember, tried to make me speak fluently instead of embracing my stammer.
It would have been terrific if STAMMA had been around then. My mother took me to various therapists who all, as I remember, tried to make me speak fluently instead of embracing my stammer. Although I lost a lot of schooling being ill for so long, I actually got good grades at secondary school but was kept in the Technical class (the lowest level which some unkindly called the 'thicko class') because of what they called 'poor communication skills'. The school did have a 'careers' teacher who never managed to have time to speak to me.
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Most people were silent about my stammer. I felt at the time that apart from my mother, no one seemed to take much interest. But that was how things were then and I don’t bore any ill will. This brings me to suggest that this often unwitting cruelty (the finishing of sentences, the hidden and outright laughter) has led to generations of now elderly people with a life behind them of loneliness, isolation and marginalisation.
Being the only person who stammers in a classroom, an office or a factory is bad enough but certainly when no one else in your family stammers then you tend, perhaps unconsciously, to be marked out as different. Nowadays, thanks to STAMMA there is much more information available. Back then there was nothing much at all except that it was often used in 'jokes' and 'comic' songs (can you feel the anger rising from me there?).
Don't forget older people
It is brilliant that nowadays there is so much public awareness and talk about stammering; hopefully future generations will accept it purely as a different way of speaking. Adults who felt isolated in their own families because it was never talked about hopefully can look forward to a different world. But those who lived through these grim days and felt, to use my favourite word, 'marginalised', probably still do in later life even with the information that’s available now.
...lots of older people may have had barren, isolated lives and the same hand of help we give to children should be extended to the elderly; it's never too late to help them feel included.
All of the above is not to say my life has been a bad and lonely one, although minor things still get to me (having to give my name when collecting my prescription in a crowded chemist for example can be a nightmare), but I am sociable. I like rugby club banter, red wine and my two sons and their wives are very supportive, as was my wife. I have been and still am involved in charities but I never forget I have been relatively lucky and lots of older people have had barren, isolated lives and the same hand of help we give to children should be extended to the elderly; it's never too late to help them feel included.
Lastly, A few years ago I just happened to catch the tail-end of a programme about stammering on, I think Radio 5 Live, saying, "Sorry, we've run out of time but we’ve had a call from a lady whose husband was retiring after many years’ service and got so worried about having to say a few words at his retirement presentation that he killed himself". I pulled into a layby and thought about that for some time. Poor man. As he was retiring, I assumed he was elderly and had no one to turn to. Did he tell his wife or did he leave her a note?
If you'd like to talk to someone, even for just a friendly chat, our Helpline & Webchat are here for you. Our Online Events Calendar lists all the groups meeting via video call that you can join. If you'd like to read more stories from people who stammer, go to our Your Voice section.