In the first in our series of articles about starting university, Kyle Lambe talks about the challenges of leaving behind old support networks and making it on your own, and encourages new students to seek out help for their stammering.
I had a strange relationship with my stammer at school. I’ve always been lucky in that I didn’t find it particularly debilitating in my social life, and it never bothered me in school plays (rehearsing for months and speaking in an accent was also helpful). The times it bothered me most were during oral presentations, but even then my teachers and classmates all knew me well so my stammering was never really a ‘problem’.
Going to university is one of the biggest changes a young adult can go through, and can involve leaving behind your home, family and friends to make it on your own. Going through all this stress can really exacerbate your dysfluency, and it can be very distressing to face at the same time as leaving your old support networks behind. But the cliché of everybody being in the same boat during Freshers’ week really is true! Everyone, stammerer or not, will have their own challenges and as you’re all adults now, people tend to be more understanding about these things.
Like my time at school, oral presentations gave me the most bother at university. Compared to the few I’d done before, they were much more formal, with firm time limits. Naturally, having a stammer can make it difficult to speak with brevity, so delivering a presentation within a set time frame is one area where we might face challenges, and this caused me a lot of worrying.
The cliché of everybody being in the same boat during Freshers’ week really is true.
Furthermore, the familiar faces of my teachers for the past seven years were no longer around. The people I would need to approach now about my stammer weren’t teachers with whom I spent a few hours each week, they were tutors with whom I might only have a few hours of contact with over a whole semester. I’m glad to report that they were always understanding and willing to accommodate my requests for extra time and work with me to find the best solution.
But it wasn’t until my final year of study, with the presentation of my dissertation looming, that my course organiser spoke with me and suggested that I register with the student disability service. He explained that this assessment would basically need a higher authority to approve any extra allowances; as this was a part of my final project with external examiners involved, a quick word with one of my tutors wouldn’t quite cut it this time.
The suggestion caught me off-guard. Why would I register as a disabled student? I had never considered my stammer to be a disability or myself to be disabled. Sure, I had had ‘special circumstances’ for my French GCSE oral exam, but that wasn’t quite the same. If I registered with the disability service then I would, officially speaking, have a disability. I told him I would think about it.
Eventually I decided that, although I was unhappy about being labelled as having a ‘disability’, this would be a small concession to make in order for this final, most important assessment to run as smoothly as possible. That I was adopting a label that I had never really felt applied to me was something that I would come to terms with.
I wish I’d registered with them earlier, as it could have saved me a lot of worrying earlier on.
However, my reservations vanished after meeting with the student disability service. The adviser was really helpful and accommodating, and always made sure that I was happy with how we would proceed; the help they offered was entirely built around me. It was also great to sit down and speak with someone just about my stammer, as that’s something that I certainly used to avoid with my friends.
The accommodations that were made for me, and the stress-relieving knowledge that this was all taken care of, were invaluable in presenting my dissertation and obtaining my 2:1.
Looking back now, I realise how unfounded my worries about labels were. It’s a deeply personal thing of course, but the fact that I was considering not seeking help that my uni was willing to offer me because of my own concerns about having ‘a disability’ seems very foolish. There’s no shame in stammering, and there’s certainly no shame in asking for help if you need it. I wish I’d registered with them earlier, as it could have saved me a lot of worrying earlier on.
So my advice to you, if you’re starting uni with a stammer, is do not be afraid of the student disability service. Everything’s confidential, and the help you can get there might just make your work a bit easier.
The only other advice I’d give is to enjoy your time at uni, as it really will be over before you know it.
If you'd like more help on starting university, see our In education page.
Get in touch with the Stammerers Through University Campaign (STUC) for more support at uni.