I want to learn more about 'Stammering Pride'

The article's author Jack NIcholas with a computer screen insert

18th February 2021

Jack Nicholas reflects on our recent live interview and Q&A with author Jonty Claypole, explaining how its theme of looking at speech disfluencies differently has had an impact on him.

Thursday 11th February 2021: my first STAMMA webinar, with the author Jonty Claypole, talking to STAMMA’s Betony Kelly about a whole range of topics linked to his new book 'Words Fail Us: In Defence of Disfluency'.

I didn't know what to expect from the lunchtime event and was surprised by the double impact it had on me. Firstly, it was an engrossing conversation that made me think about the positives to stammering, the opportunities for debate, activism and change, and the dangers of something Jonty called 'hyper-fluency' — an obsession with fluency in society — which was a completely new concept for me. Secondly, something I never anticipated, was feeling part of a group and learning from others' experiences. 

I didn't know what to expect and was surprised by the double impact it had on me. 

Jonty started off by saying he felt strange talking about stammering at a time when he was more relaxed about his stammer, and more fluent. This is something I guess many stammerers can recognise — if you are able to talk about stammering to others, chances are that your perspective has changed in some way.

He became aware of his stammer when very young, not because he noticed anything going on himself but because he heard others talking about it. He put it beautifully: "Stammering begins in the adult's ear rather than the child's mouth."

Watch Jonty's interview below

In his early 30s, Jonty went on a City Lit therapy course which he credits with changing his thinking about stammering — many years ago, speech therapy with Peggy Dalton (BSA's co-founder) and before that at Birmingham QE Hospital, helped change my own perspective. He told the story of going to Holborn Station to practise public voluntary stammering while maintaining eye contact — something I have never persuaded myself to do. He realised that although stammering was dominating his life, he knew nothing about it. So, he started to explore. His book is the result.

In his view, people with disfluencies have a different relationship with language from people who are unthinkingly fluent — they think about language in a fundamentally different way. Betony noted that disfluency can promote language ability and processing. Communication can be better because the stammerer has to plan the speech, and the listener has to listen. There is a power to disfluency that we often ignore. 

'Stammering pride'

But Jonty also spoke about the dangers in bringing all speech disorders together under one neurodiversity banner. They are different and should be treated as such, he said. On the other hand, there is an advantage in umbrella networks that have strength in numbers and can promote pride and diversity. This brings us to what I thought was one of the core themes of the webinar: 'Stammering Pride'. With roots in the social model of disability, the movement promotes being open and accepting of stammering and focuses on communication rather than disfluency.

Jonty observed that most social change comes from activism and gave credit to advocates of stammering pride for their work and community building. Joe Biden is President of the USA. Now could be an opportunity for a new movement to have an impact.

My stammer was both my public and my secret shame. I feel differently now though, and I want to learn more about stammering pride. 

My view is that activism starts with community and vision, but people who stammer are less likely to form communities, almost by definition. When my stammer was severe, I was reluctant to talk about it, let alone declare pride in it. I certainly wasn't prepared to join others to promote it. My stammer was both my public and my secret shame. I feel differently now though, and I want to learn more about stammering pride. 

Jonty raised the question: does someone with overt fluency have the right to promote stammering pride? His answer: he is observing and trying to work out how to help.

He also observed that blues music has a relationship with stammering. BB King and John Lee Hooker both stammered. Robert Plant and Jim Morrison used voluntary stammering (of a sort) in singing. A sort of precursor to stammering pride?

Hyper-fluency & the media

And then there was this exciting new idea (to me) of hyper-fluency. Betony described it as the "TED-talk phenomenon" — beautiful but meaningless. Jonty talked about it in terms of the media (his professional world) having zero tolerance of disfluency and reverence for ultra-fluent presenters and performers. This reverence for hyper-fluency has its dangers. 

As Betony raised in a pre-webinar promotional tweet: "Is modern speech more 'style over substance'? Has the rise of slick social media performers destroyed our ability to process thoughtful comments if they include pauses, tics, stuttered speech, etc?" Jonty replied that we must pull stuttering out of the ghetto; it need not be defined simply as not being fluent when fluency itself can be seen as a political act. This, for me, is a radical and important idea.

There is a power to disfluency that we often ignore. 

We can all question the value of fluency. Is the content of what is being said really subordinate to how it is articulated? 

Jonty said that the media may be changing slowly. There is now more acceptance that received pronunciation, or 'BBC English', is only one of many equal variants of accent and dialect. But speech disorders remain one of the last taboos in broadcasting.

My copy of the book has arrived and I look forward to reading it. Headphones on. Appropriate music to help me concentrate. BB King and John Lee Hooker, obviously.

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