11th September 2020
Back in January Richard Smith's article for this site got such a great response that he decided to write this follow up on the feedback. He also talks about how he's getting on in lockdown and the possibility of Joe Biden becoming President.
The feedback I got to my article '40 years of self-managing my stammer' was amazing. It got thousands of views across social media. Some of the personal comments, especially from fellow ‘senior stammerers’ and parents of stammering children were very moving. So, I thought I would share some of the feedback and my reflections on stammering.
I was genuinely touched by the kindness of friends, colleagues and connections when I talked about some of the hurt I have felt. Talking about my stammer for the first time in so many years was a release, a cathartic experience – and I hope it encourages others to tell their stories.
“A classmate sat down next to me and asked if I could help her with her homework. I knew the answers and she was very pretty but, all I could do was mumble. Eventually, her pals started sniggering. She patted my arm, stood up and walked away.”
These memories are mine, but we need to remember that there are thousands of children today having the same experiences. And even if they are helped to learn how to manage their stammer, these little humiliations will never be forgotten. They need help. They need support. They need love. Love is free but help and support need funding. And we need to continue to make the case for more investment in speech therapy and in-class resources.
We have to rail against the notion that stammering can be cured. It can’t. Humans have not yet learnt how to re-wire the speech pathway. We can be helped to manage the disability but it doesn’t go way.
And this isn’t just about increasing understanding and recognition. When someone stammers, it is painfully obvious that they have the disability. When someone learns to reshape and restrict their speech pattern to minimise the chances of stammering in public, they aren’t ‘cured’. The number of people impacted by stammering is far bigger than the public, press and politicians realise. They hear the stammer but they don’t hear the silence.
When someone learns to reshape and restrict their speech pattern to minimise the chances of stammering in public, they aren't 'cured'.
There is some brilliant research being led by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand into what is happening in the brain when someone stammers. It suggests that the parts of the brain most impacted are the areas responsible for planning, starting and correcting speech. So, my carefulness over the vocabulary I use and the sounds that I choose to start my conversations is beginning to make sense. My brain is trying to manage its own weaknesses.
I can confidently talk for hours about banking regulations or funding structures for the Arts but I still find ‘small talk’ really difficult. Talking to a stranger about something random and unpractised is still a challenge and one I instinctively try and avoid. And I know that can make me seem antisocial or disinterested but I can’t help it. I am fine in situations I control, like making a speech or chairing a meeting, but in the unstructured world of social interaction, I am not in control and that’s when I can struggle.
One of my friends remarked that “there is increasing and welcome focus on a whole range of conditions that aren't visible, and acceptance that they don't have to be visible to be real”. I hope so. In the past, stammering was source material for jokes and an excuse to dismiss stammerers as inadequate and intellectually limited. Thanks to the great work of the British Stammering Association and the positive advocacy of Michael Palin and other high-profile stammerers, society has become more tolerant and more caring. But there is still much ignorance and still much to do.
The possibility of a person who stammers becoming the President of the USA is amazing and a real opportunity. Joe Biden’s courage, resilience and determination are even more obvious to those of us who stammer. And when he is cruelly mocked, that hurts. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right but perversely, the small-minded, small-towners belittle themselves more than they damage him. As we all know, stammerers get toughened by experience.
And whether he wins or loses, Joe’s run for the Oval Office should be inspirational for all those children feeling teased, frustrated, misunderstood and worried that their stammer will mean life’s opportunities will pass them by. If Joe can, you can.
One of my colleagues commented that my article was “an insight into one of those conditions that non-sufferers think they know something about, whereas in reality we have no idea.”
The COVID-19 lockdown has been a mixed blessing – apart from the obvious fears and precautions. Welcome periods of quiet reflection interspersed with frustrations about the insensitivity of the digital age. I already loathe ‘voice-recognition software’, the nightmare that requires you to speak in a certain way and with no flexibility that would minimise the risk of stammering. I have a degree in English. I have a very broad vocabulary. But I find it really, really difficult to verbally describe what is wrong with my Blackberry in just three fecking words!
But I have two new pet hates: Zoom and Microsoft Teams. To all those plugging these technologies as the future of work, social interaction and education, please remember how daunting they can be to people who stammer. Having to try and speak clearly and coherently to a collage of gibbering faces making random noises whilst a bloody camera captures every stammer, every silence. Total nightmare.
Thank you for all the positive messages – it means so much.
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